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Plain language has few chances without standards

Lesedauer 4 Minuten

Uwe Roth, Journalist. Contribution Newsletter 2/2021 Plain Language Association International. German version

It is high time for a standard of plain language in Germany. The population would have been better informed about the Covid-19 pandemic. Trust in political leaders could be higher. Public protest would probably be less. This is my observation as a journalist reporting on the pandemic.

The University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim confirms my assessment . Scientists analyzed more than 1,300 press releases from the German federal government. They found that most texts are too difficult to understand. The press spokespeople do not explain technical terms. An ISO/DIN is urgently needed. It must not be a recommendation but should be binding. Otherwise, little will change. Specialist language is a signal for authority in Germany.

Germans love their long sentences

Plain language is not popular in Germany. On the contrary, complex sentences are part of a long German tradition. Politicians, administrations, and academia like to maintain this tradition. Plain language still has a hard time fighting against it. Mark Twain (1835-1910) laughs about the German language: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.” I can confirm that. I quote this sentence from Twain in my seminars. Participants are predominantly academics. The quote is always good for a laugh.

The academics have come to my course to make their technical language understandable. At the end of the course, participants are usually convinced that it is time for plain language. Yet weeks later, I ask whether the good intentions are still there. Most of the time, I find little change in their communication. If Mark Twain were alive, he could continue to complain about the German language without inhibition.

Specialist language imparts competence and replaces arguments. This was shown in a dangerous way in the Covid-19 pandemic. Some virologists have become extremely popular with their daily statements in the media. The population knows their names. But people do not understand much about what they say about the virus. Virologists stayed in their laboratories or lecture halls before the pandemic. They were rarely in a press conference or talk show in front of a microphone. Scientists expect the public and politicians to accept their conclusions without objection and make rules based on their expertise. They see no reason to be universally understood. Politicians who studied medicine are substitute mediators of knowledge. But do politicians do this with the public in mind?

In medicine, the density of technical terms is extremely high. Virologists would have to undergo intense training to make their knowledge generally understandable. In my courses, I explain this process of transformation in this way: a scientist has firmly anchored the technical language in his mind. He must translate his technical language into everyday language in order to explain something to a layman. This translation must happen in an instant on the way from the brain to the mouth. Few people master this interpretation of their own thoughts in real time.

Is legal certainty more important than comprehensibility?

I live in Baden-Württemberg, a southern region in Germany. I have examined public texts by my state government about the Covid-19 rules. I contacted the ministry. I have confronted a responsible person with my accusation that the public cannot understand the texts. The person was a bit guilt conscious. She apologized, arguing that there was little time to write the text. In addition, she explained that such a text must be 100% legally secure. I asked the provocative question: does a sentence containing 60 words have to do with legal certainty? Can it not be that this text is simply poorly written?

The scientists of the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim criticize the technical terms in the press releases of the federal government, which have remained unexplained. They also found that many sentences are too long, and the sentence construction is complicated. You can call it bad German. I often hear that legal certainty excludes plain language. This is supposedly the knock-out argument in Germany. But what is technical language made of?

From my point of view, what I see in these texts is 70% everyday German language and 30% technical language. If an author puts the 70% in order (short sentences and clear sentence construction), they get a lot closer to plain language. In a next step, the author must rewrite the technical terms. With these initial steps, much has been achieved for general comprehensibility.

Experts must impart knowledge in everyday language

If the ISO/DIN Plain Language were already in place, two rules would be of central importance:

1. Set the audience for which the text is intended.

2. The text is limited to the vocabulary of the target group.

The legislation with the Corona Code of Conduct, which deeply affects people’s everyday lives, is not formulated for the population. The rules are written by lawyers for lawyers. Technical terms from virology and pandemic research are adopted without question. Scientific literature is mostly in English and German translations are rarely specified for specific terms.

Politics, administration, and science expect the media to translate this technical language. But local and regional media in particular are completely overwhelmed by this. Everyone assumes that ordinary citizens understand what “lockdown” actually means. Social distancing, home-office, home-schooling, or FFP mask have become equally common in the German language. But why?

I bring difficult texts towards the goal of plain language. The emphasis is on “towards”. I usually only reach plain language because the source texts have failed to serve their purpose. They are not limited to the vocabulary of the target group. I cannot repeat it often enough: a text is addressed to the general public. That is the assignment. But the author did not have the citizens in mind when writing, but lawyers or political opponents. If an author is not willing to have their text consistently rewritten for the target group, plain language has no chance.

My conclusion: the author must embrace plain language. This is the first step for making a text ready for the general public. There should be as little technical language as possible. This will allow the editing process into plain language easier. Covid-19 communication has shown how far politics, administration, and science are from this realization. I can only hope that a national standard will bring more acceptance.

Uwe Roth is a journalist who has been writing texts in simple language for administrations, public institutions and companies for 6 years. He is a lecturer at technical schools and organizes workshops.

Roth is a member of the Association of the German Institute for Standardization (DIN). He is deputy project manager in the working group for a DIN Einfache Sprache.

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