It’s not just about reading, it’s about understanding: simplifying texts

When they face a problem involving a language, such as a written text that should be easy for most people, but is difficult, linguists question the situation and may bring suggestions for people to communicate better.

Maria José Bocorny Finatto, Gabriel L. Ponomarenko and Laura P. Berwanger Maria José Bocorny Finatto holds a PhD in Linguistics. She studies how technical and scientific languages work and how ordinary people can understand complex information. Gabriel L. Ponomarenko and Laura P. Berwanger do the Translation course at UFRGS and study how to make written texts more comprehensible for people with limited education. The three authors have a research grant from public financing agencies in Brazil (FAPERGS and CNPq).

Understanding the message of some kinds of texts can be difficult for many people. We can have difficulties trying to understand texts about laws and rights, health care, or public utility matters that are more technical, especially those with words that are not used in our daily lives. Unfortunately, from what we have studied, most texts on public utility matters in Brazil tend to require advanced knowledge from people with low schooling and with poor reading experience. Sometimes it seems that it is not taken into account that those people are the ones who need to understand the information the most, since they are the majority of the population. This we can see, for example, in the text of the Brazilian Ministry on Health below that is about measles:

“Measles is an acute infectious disease, viral in nature, severe, transmitted by speech, cough and sneeze, and extremely contagious, but can be prevented by vaccine. It can be contracted by people of any age.
Infectious complications contribute to the severity of the disease, particularly in malnourished and under one year of age children. In some parts of the world, this disease is the major cause of morbidity and mortality among children under 5 years of age.
endemic behavior of measles varies from place to place and depends primarily on the relationship between the immunity degree and the susceptibility of the population, as well as the circulation of the virus in the area.”

This text can be difficult to understand for many reasons. In our University and elsewhere in the world, these reasons have been scientifically studied for a long time, at least since 1960. One reason for difficulty would be the amount of strange words for a person who has studied until Elementary School, but who does not read a lot. Unusual words used without an explanation, in general, tend to complicate things. Go back to the text above and observe the words in bold.

Well, as we have been studying, we can think of the measles text as if it was a public building frequented by several people, including people with special needs. As you know, public buildings have to offer accessibility features, like access ramps and lifts for wheelchair users, and special flooring for blind people. A very complicated text, as well as a building without these accessibility features, can disrupt the reader’s understanding.

            With all this in mind, we introduce ourselves here, for you, our reader, as linguists. Linguists are a type of experts – among many others – who study these texts, and who question what makes them more or less complicated for different people. Linguists are scientists who describe and analyze the functioning of spoken and written languages. Linguists do not judge the things they study, they just describe and try to explain what happens in the languages.

When they face a problem involving a language, such as a written text that should be easy for most people, but is difficult, linguists question the situation and may bring suggestions for people to communicate better. But the people involved in the situation, both those who read and those who write these texts, need to want to do something and even understand a little about what the linguists do.

Linguists are a type of experts – among many others – who study these texts, and who question what makes them more or less complicated for different people.

Our research, which is done at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre – RS, is called Textual and Terminological Accessibility. With it, we want to be able to help those who need to write texts like the example above about measles to approach the average Brazilian reader. We think of this reader as a worker who has complete Elementary School, and who does not read much in his or her daily life. This way, as linguists, we research how technical and scientific texts could be improved to facilitate their understanding. So, we describe and analyze the entire structure of several written texts, and pay close attention to vocabulary and technical terms, which we call terminologies. We also pay attention to how the sentences are constructed, and in various other aspects of writing.

First, we identify, choose, and analyze a bunch of texts, with and without problems, on different subjects about public utility that may be important to people. To help us analyze the texts, we use computer programs and several works by scientists who have already studied how to simplify texts. Then, we give suggestions for people and public agencies that write these texts, to simplify texts and technical terms. This way, we use our science, which is called Linguistics, to see qualities of what is well done, but also to perceive problems that repeat themselves, and that could confuse our reader. We can see this, in practice, in our suggestion for improvement for that measles text you read before:

“Measles is a very serious disease caused by a virus. A virus is a being of such a tiny size that it is invisible to our eyes and acts on the person’s body as if it was a poison. Measles is a disease that passes very easily from one person to another: when we talk closely, cough or sneeze, we spread the virus. One good thing is that there is a vaccine to prevent measles.
People of all ages, children and adults, can get the disease if they do not get vaccinated. Measles hits more severely very underweight children and those less than one year old. In some places, measles is the disease that kills most children under 5 years of age. Young adults are also getting measles and having serious problems because of this disease.
The existence of the disease in a place depends on how well the people in this place are already vaccinated. This is because vaccinated people will not let the disease spread, helping both children and adults to be free of measles.”

Much easier now, right? But to make sure our suggestion for improvement really works, we linguists still do a lot of testing. We show the simplified texts to several readers to know what they understood and if they liked the text like that. We also consult doctors and health professionals to find out what they thought of the improvement suggestion.

Our research will only be done after studying many texts and listening to many people. Then the results will be released. In the end, we hope that public agencies and these texts writers can take advantage of what we have discovered. As we said at the beginning of this text, with this Linguistics research, we intend to help communication between people. In short: we want to propose “access ramps” made up of words to make it easier for people to read. This way, we can collaborate to increase the right of access to information for those with low schooling and little reading experience.

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