Transliteracy, plain language & post-structuralism

Notebook entry #7

On Thursday, October 27th, Mount Saint Vincent University held a panel discussion entitled Transliteracy: Information Literacy, Digital Fluencies and Pedagogical Strategies as part of its Literacies as Ways of Knowing series.

I looked forward to this discussion because I thought it would teach me loads about information technology. As I sit here writing this blog on my laptop, I have my smartphone to my right and a cordless phone to my left. I can easily spend all day on the computer writing, checking and responding to emails, checking the news on Facebook and Twitter and following the various links I find there. Still, I know I am barely scratching the surface of what new technologies offer. So I was really keen to learn more about all this digital stuff.

But I learned that that’s not really what transliteracy means. According to Production and Research in Transliteracy, the group that coined the term, it means “the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”

So transliteracy is about being able speak, read, write, use sign language, and interpret messages from a wide variety of technologies, including those that come free with our own bodies, and to use those technologies to convey our own messages. In short, it’s about people talking to people however they choose to do so.

That made me think of transliteracy in a completely different way and brought me back to plain language. I think the key to all this is communication. Yes, there are more ways to communicate than ever before but it’s still communication. That means plain language writers like me have more research to do.  We already try to find out as much about our audiences as we can but some things we may have overlooked, and certainly things our clients overlook are

  • How do members of our target audience want to get information?
  • Where do they look for information?
  • How do they organize their own information such as appointments, tasks, etc.?

For example, a legal-aid lawyer friend of mine told me that her clients keep all their information on their mobile phones. These are often single parents of young children who travel by public transit. Yet all the information given to them by government is either on paper, in the form of a booklet or brochure, or on the web as a PDF version of that paper.

Imagine going home after a stressful meeting. You’re on the bus,  juggling your purse, a stroller, a child or two, and paper. The best time to read that information may be on the bus as the children may be occupied or sleeping. When you get home, you may not have a computer with which to access the PDF files and your papers may be soggy from rain or tears, crumpled, torn, or lost.

In that situation, wouldn’t you want a mobile phone app? And wouldn’t you want that app to be free? And wouldn’t you want that free app to be accessible on your phone, not just on the higher end more expensive phones?

We have to be careful that, as one panel attendee said, we don’t let the technology drive us, we drive the technology. For example, on October 15th my family and I attended  Nocturne: Art at Night in Halifax. It was wonderful to be downtown with so many people taking in the free art shows but we didn’t get the full experience. That’s because this year, Nocturne developed an app for iPhone and iPod Touch that made the experience more interactive. Not having these devices, we could not participate.

I ran into a similar situation at Halifax Citadel in the summer. Some museum installations had QR codes that offered more information about the installation, often a video. But to get the information you needed a mobile phone with a camera and specific software. Because my phone is two years old, it does not have the software and I was unable to get the added information.

In both cases, I think those who added the apps and the QR codes thought they were a doing people a great service offering them added information and experiences on a platform that they are already using. I mean really, who doesn’t have an iPhone?

So here’s where I bring in our classroom discussion about post-structuralism. In class, we talked about the various ways people are privileged or lack privilege and how, those that have privilege are blind to it.

I think that may be what’s going on with the four forms for communication I’ve talked about: the paper, the PDFs, the apps, the QR codes. How much has privilege blinded the information providers to the barriers the platform itself puts up to the information?

Bureaucrats work with paper all day and have computers at their desks and printers that they can use. Many have computers at home. Many carry brief cases and travel to and from work and appointments without their children. So having some extra paper is not a burden and if it gets wrecked, it’s no big deal, they’ll just get the PDF off the web.

Artists seem to love Apple products and it didn’t come as a surprise to me that both the Atlantic Film Festival and Nocturne had iPhone apps. Because they see these devices so often in their everyday lives, they are blind to the fact that not everybody has them and because they see it as an added bonus, they don’t notice that people may feel left out if they don’t have the device.

Finally, QR codes are a great way to put added information into a museum installation, particularly videos, without having to set up monitors and listening posts. I’m sure curators see loads of people in museums taking pictures of each other and installations with mobile phones so they may have assumed that all phones have the same capability. And, like those behind Nocturne, they may see it as an added bonus. But that may not be the way the patron who has paid the same entry fee as someone else feels when they cannot get the same experience because they don’t have the correct device or software.

So while many people a the Transliteracy panel discussion seemed to discuss transliteracy from the viewpoint of the receiver of information, I look at it from the point of view of those who provide information. It is up to us to do two things:

  • make sure that we understand the reasons behind using particular technologies to give information to people and to make sure that these technologies are a good fit
  • be conscious of our own privileges and how they may blind us to barriers others may have to receiving information in particular ways

Plain Language Q & A

Notebook entry #6

For this week’s entry I have decided to go back to my first three notebook entries and answer some of the questions put to me by my Literacy Learning professor Dr. Susan Walsh.

Is plain language assumed to be neutral?

That depends on the document’s intended audience. The goal of plain language is for the person reading the document to understand it on first reading. If I’m writing a manual for Nova Scotia snowplough operators, I try to find as much out about them as I can and target my writing accordingly. So in that case, no, plain language is not neutral. If all the Nova Scotia snowplough operators are white males in their 50s who watch baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and hockey in the winter, then I can write to them and leave whole swaths of people out. I can use gendered pronouns and sports metaphors, and popular culture references going back to the ’70s. The document will be fairly easy to test as my audience is a small, almost homogeneous group.

The difficulty comes in writing for “the general public.” In my experience, these documents are mainly aimed at adults in Nova Scotia who are affected by a particular government service. And here I do try to be neutral. How?

  • Use language that is gender-neutral; avoid gendered pronouns and opt for the singular “they” or dispense with pronouns altogether.
  • Use the simplest terms possible and write in the active voice in order to reach the least literate in the target audience. In my experience, no one has ever complained that a document is too easy to read.
  • Use images such as illustrations, maps, charts, and comic strips if these will convey the message more clearly than words alone. The goal, again, is to reach those members of the audience who may have trouble with written text.
  • Test the document with a small group that is representative of the target audience and use their feedback to remove any barriers to understanding.

Who is “the general public” and to what extent is this (seemingly) homogeneous entity actually raced, classed, gendered in terms of literacy?

Often when I ask a client, usually workers in a government department, who the target audience for a particular project is, the response is, “the general public.” When I get this response, I know I am dealing with an audience that is definitely NOT homogeneous. For example, I am currently working on a new edition of the Nova Scotia Driver’s Handbook. For this project, I know a few things about my target audience:

  • They can be from any race and many users of this booklet will be new immigrants to Canada from countries with whom Nova Scotia has no reciprocal driver’s licence agreement. For many, English will be a second, third, or subsequent language.
  • Everyone in the audience plans to drive a vehicle in Nova Scotia, therefore they will have access to one but that does not mean that they own their own vehicle. A driver’s licence could be a condition of employment where the employee is expected to drive a company car.  So members of the audience can be from any “class.”
  • My audience is male and female.
  • All readers are 16 years of age or older as that is the minimum age allowed for a Nova Scotia learner’s permit. Since they can come from anywhere in the world, I do NOT assume that they are reading English at a Grade 10 level.

Is there an assumption that language is a vehicle for transporting ideas from one person to another in a neutral kind of way?

The short answer is  yes. In my work, the message comes from my client and is transported through my words and any images I suggest to the audience. As discussed above, there are ways to try to do this in a neutral way.

Who created the categories of readers referred to in Reflections on Literacy?

I had heard of these levels through working with Diane Macgregor, Communications Nova Scotia’s plain language specialist but I see that they bear a strong resemblance to the levels reported on in the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey  (IALS) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada released in 2000 ( On this website, literacy is divided into 5 levels but levels 4 and 5 are merged as the site breaks down the Canadian population as follows:

  • “22% of Canadians are at level 1. People at this level have difficulty reading and have few basic skills or strategies for decoding and working with text. Generally, they are aware that they have a literacy problem.
  • 26% of Canadians are at level 2. These are people with limited skills who read but do not read well enough. Canadians at this level can deal only with material that is simple and clearly laid out. They often do not recognize their limitations.
  • 33% of Canadians are at level 3. They can read well but may have problems with more complex tasks. This level is considered by many countries to be the minimum for successful participation in society.
  • 20% of Canadians are at levels 4 or 5. People at these levels have strong literacy skills, including a wide range of reading skills and many strategies for dealing with complex materials. These Canadians can meet most reading demands and can handle new reading challenges.”

What are the complexities of labelling people as “good”/”poor” readers, etc.?

First, I don’t think individual adults should ever be labelled this way and that is not how plain language is used. However, tools like the IALS are helpful when we design documents that are intended to give information to a wide range of people. It is useful to know that a certain segment of the population has such difficulty reading and working with written text that we might abandon that method of transmitting information in favour of offering videos for example. This was done by the Nova Scotia government during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. At immunization centres across the province people were required to watch a short video that explained the risks and benefits of the vaccine. Someone in government must have realized that handing printed brochures to people containing the same information would not constitute informed consent in the same way that the video would. It is also helpful to know that most of us, particularly when dealing with information outside our own area of expertise, fall within the 81 per cent of  Canadians  with less than “strong literacy skills” rather than the 20 per cent who seem to be able to handle everything.

In reference to legalese, medicalese, etc., would you agree that is is what [Judith] Baker calls “professional language”?

No. In my first post, when I said “Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else … [and that] the same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government,” I meant that the language is less about the necessary words and phrases for doing the job and conveying meaning and more about the comfort that comes from using jargon and convoluted sentence structure as a show of belonging to a particular privileged group. To me, professional language, as Baker used the term, is a mechanic saying “carburetor” to refer to that particular part of a vehicle as that is the correct name. Often lawyers, doctors and other professionals move beyond precise terminology to elevate their own speech and writing. For example,

  • legalese -“Compensation will be in the amount of $100,000.00 per annum.”  instead of “You will be paid $100,000.00 a year.”
  • medicalese – signs in hospitals would be more helpful if they read “kidney care” instead of “nephrology.”

How do [Judith] Baker’s and [Lisa] Delpit’s articles relate to plain language work?

I think Baker and Delpit are practising a kind of plain language in their work by reaching their students in the language that those students use on a daily basis. From here, Baker and Delpit bring their students to “standard English” and allow them to find the contexts in which to use it.

We have to remember that we all benefit from plain language.  As the IALS shows, 81 per cent of the Canadian population has less than “strong literacy skills.” Almost 50 per cent have ” difficulty reading and have few basic skills” or “limited skills who read but do not read well enough.” Those who have strong literacy skills still benefit from “material that is simple and clearly laid out” because we aren’t always at the top of our game. We get tired. We get bored. We’re not motivated to digest the information being given to us. Plain language is about ensuring your audience understands your work on the first read and not putting up barriers to that understanding.

To quote Hippocrates, “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

We need the languages of the world

Notebook entry #2 2011-09-27

“Schools alone cannot save languages …but schools  can kill them more or less alone. Of course schools reflect the rest of society.”

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas makes this powerful statement on page 6 of “What is happening to the languages of the world”, a chapter from her book Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights?

It’s a statement that’s difficult to argue with. Mary Young‘s article, “Anishinabemowin: A way of seeing the world, reclaiming my identity” shows how the Canadian residential school system tried to wipe out her language.

But it wasn’t just the native languages that were under attack in Canada. My mother tells me that she and her friends were not allowed to speak their own languages at school. She grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She and her friends spoke Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian at home and a mixture of these languages amongst each other. They were only allowed to speak English at school and that is the only language she is comfortable speaking now.

My friend, Diane, grew up in Cape Breton and told me that children were punished for speaking Gaelic in school.

French was almost wiped out in the Maritimes with many former Leblancs now calling themselves White. Again, English was the language taught in school.

But what my mother, my friend Diane, and assimilated Acadians have in common is that it was not just school that killed their languages. Their own families were complicit. In order to give their children the best start in life, they encouraged English to the detriment of their own languages. Speaking English meant future success. It was believed that their own languages would somehow hold them back.

My father’s family went further and changed their name from the Polish Bucki to the Scottish Buckie. My former parish priest is a White from Chezzetcook. His name was changed years ago from Leblanc.

Perhaps names didn’t change in Cape Breton but, according to Diane, many tried to wipe local expressions from their speech.  For example, Diane tells me that it was  common in Cape Breton to ask, “How are you yourself?” as it mimics the Gaelic speech pattern of “Clamar a tha thu fhein?” Rather than celebrating this richness, Cape Bretoners were “educated” out of using it so that their English sounded more like that spoken in Halifax.

So, it is not only the “Third  world elites” as Skutnabb-Kangas quotes Debi Prasanna Pattanayak as saying, who “deride the mother tongues in their own countries as dialect, slang, patois, vernacular, and condemn them to marginal use, or completely ignore them” (13). It is anyone who sees the dominant language and culture as something to which to aspire, something that will improve one’s lot in life.

This is what makes Mary Young’s father so remarkable when  he matter-of-factly asserted at the dinner table: “Intanishinabemowin nun awind oma biiting (We speak Saulteaux in this house).”

Faced with the forced residential schooling of his children, and other hardships forced on Canada’s First Nations peoples, Young’s father did not take the “If-you-can’t-beat-’em-,-join-’em” attitude that so many others did. Instead, he held true to his values in his house.

What made him fight the system? When others were freely giving up their language and even their family names to the dominant culture, what gave Young’s father the courage and strength to maintain his linguistic identity and, therefore, preserve it for his family?

I think this is an important question to try to answer in light of Skutnabb-Kangas’s discussion of the rate of language disappearance in the world today (pp 46-59). Because we may not have heard of many of the threatened languages such as Kila, Bung, or Njanga, or because they are spoken by very few people, does not make their loss any less important.

Languages, particularly minority languages, are important for two reasons:

  • They contain unique ways of seeing the world.
  • Their loss may be the harbinger of things to come.

Mary Young says, “I do not believe anyone can learn to speak and fully understand the Anishinabe language because it contains the world view of the Anishinabe people.”

Is this not true of many languages around the world? Is this not true also of English? Does English contain a world view that the world’s people are being unwittingly co-opted into? The current state of the world is not good. We live in a world of over consumption of material goods, of extreme disparity between rich and poor, of rapid environmental degradation. Did the English-language world view bring us here? If it did, how do we change it without the world views that are present in other languages?

Finally, perhaps we cannot save many of the world’s endangered languages but we can use their loss as a lesson. What’s next? If we lose Cayuga (Canada), Dalmatian (Croatia), or Penrhyn (Cook Islands), how far behind are the languages we take for granted — French, Croat, Thai?

French is already threatened in Canada outside Quebec. The demise of the long-form census has made it more difficult for francophone organizations to get the data they need to justify their requests for francophone services such as schools. Funding is being cut to many francophone organizations, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s business cards are now in English only, a departure from federal government practice.

So, yes, perhaps schools have been instrumental in killing languages. But they didn’t do it alone and they didn’t do it without the express wishes of those who wield economic power.

And schools have been instrumental in the resurgence of francophone and Acadian language and culture in Nova Scotia and throughout the Acadian diaspora in the United States. Teachers from Nova Scotia’s Acadian communities teach French in schools in Louisiana and Maine. This growing resurgence has led to the next Congrès mondial acadien being held simultaneously in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine, something that has never been done before.

Promoting and supporting minority languages in schools and other community activities is costly. The debate as to whether it is worth the cost is ongoing in Canada and in the Maritimes in particular. If  we’re not careful, the resurgence of the francophone and Acadian culture could die again if those in power decide it just isn’t worth the cost.

If it can happen to French in Canada. It can happen to any language anywhere. Do we want to live in a world with only one language and one world view?

Writing so clear, you’ll never know that you’re reading

That’s what I shoot for. I am an independent plain language consultant in Nova Scotia. My passion is taking complex information and turing it into a message you can act on.

Have your ever read a sign, brochure, or a set of instructions and wondered: “What am I supposed to do?” Take a look at the sign on the left. It’s posted outside Acadia University’s sports centre.

What would I do differently? First, I’d use the universal no-smoking icon to convey the main message.

I might even stop there but I get the feelig that the university wants to give its students, employees, and visitors a little more detail. So I would add a note:

“Acadia is a non-smoking university. Please put out cigarettes, cigars, and pipes in the ashtrays found on the edges of campus.”

I cut 18 words from the original message. I think I’ve made it much clearer. And I’ve rid the message of complex words such as “extinguish,” “receptacles,” and “periphery.” These words are difficult for early readers, those for whom reading is a more difficult activity, and those who are new to the English language.

I’ve been doing plain language consulting work for the Province of Nova Scotia for almost six years.

You can learn more about me and my work by checking out my resumé.