What do you know about the deaf

Simple language. What do you know about the deaf? #17

How to write in a simple way? What should I do if I don't understand the content of an official letter?

“Deaf people have a problem with reading the text with understanding.” “Deaf people have a problem with grammatically correct writing” – if you are watching this video, you are probably interested in deaf and hard of hearing people. Information about writing and reading problems comes as no surprise to you.

Why do deaf people have trouble reading?

What do these problems stem from? This is a topic for a separate episode or even for a whole series! Briefly, the main causes seem to be:

  • an education system which is not adapted to the needs of the deaf;
  • complicated accidence in Polish (grammar), words have various endings;
  • words that can have different meanings, e.g. watch, nail;
  • the lack of equivalents for many words in Sign Language;
  • unavailability of the natural way of acquiring phonic language – being able to hear speech.

And so on and so forth… This topic is a big deal, and we will continue this discussion for sure

Hearing comprehension of the text

But… Do only the deaf and hard of hearing have problems with understanding texts? Well, let’s see an example:

“Municipality and the Communal Office kindly informs that on 12th December 2012, this Office received a letter dated 6th December 2012 from Ms Y and Mr Z, on which the signatures of the persons submitting the letter are missing. In the letter, in its final section, typewritten names of the applicants and the attorney were indicated. Meanwhile, Article 63 of the Code of Administrative Procedure  (Journal of Laws of 2000,  No. 98, item 1071, as amended) specifies the minimum requirements for a letter to an administrative institution, while §. 3 of Article 63 of the cited law indicates that if a written form is maintained, the signature of the submitter is necessary. This requirement was not met by the state citizens  due to the lack of handwritten signatures under the letter submitted. Because of the above, the authority here will be able to refer to the letter sent by Ms Y and Mr Z after the signatures are affixed to the letter sent or a letter of the same content bearing the signatures of the submitters is sent.”

And how? Did you understand everything? Did you have to read it twice or particularly focus on the meaning and purpose of the letter? This was an example of a real letter from the government, and yet such a letter should be clear and understandable to everyone.

Simple language – what happens when it’s not there?

For many years, efforts have been underway to simplify the language used in official-citizen relations. If a citizen does not understand a letter, he or she is likely to contact the office for clarification or not follow the official’s instructions. Both situations not only cause unnecessary stress for the citizen and wasted time but also affect costs and efficiency for officials. And this puts a strain on the pockets of all of us – as taxpayers. The administrator, in addition to preparing and sending the first letter, will have to spend additional time explaining, probably processing and responding to subsequent letters. Time passes, the cost of dealing with an issue increases, and all of this could have been avoided if we had applied the principle of “simple language.”

Clear communication of information

What are the characteristics of simple language?  First, clear communication of information. Let’s look at such a sentence we invented:

“Based on the paragraph of such and such, dated this and that, of the resolution of the city of X, we inform you that you have not completed all the mandatory items in the application you submitted to the Department of Communications of the District Office on this and that day, therefore you must complete the missing information.”

A sentence made up by us, but it sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How about:

Dear Ms./Mr., Your application is missing a signature. Please complete it.
Yours sincerely, Communications Department of the District Office.”

Simpler? Yes. Shorter? Also. Understandable? By all means! Well, that’s it, let’s move on to the second point.

Failure to include legal grounds in the main body of the letter

Second – not including the legal basis in the main body of the letter. We are familiar with this problem – as in the example above – where in an official letter we have to wade through a lot of information about what, where and when it was written. Which legal provision, which chapter, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, point, sub-point. On what date this legal provision was enacted, and on what date it came into effect. On top of that, there are endless changes and amendments, which also have their position in the law, the date of enactment and adoption. And all this is in the body of our letter. 

Of course, the information on what legal basis the office requires something from us is as correct as possible. But why put it in the the main body of the letter? Then where? In the footnotes. It is there that we can add the phrase: “legal basis” and then a whole list of what, where and when. Of course, footnotes can be many, depending on your needs. The important thing is that they should be separated from the main content. It’s even a good idea to write them in a reduced font to make the main text as clear as possible. In our example, it could look about like this:

 “Dear Sir. In the application you submitted to us, your signature was missing. Please complete it*. Yours sincerely. Communications Department of the District Office.”
*based on the City Resolution of … chapter …, paragraph …, paragraph … (smaller font).

Difficult vocabulary

The third issue: is difficult vocabulary. Let’s simply not use it. Of course, every industry, speciality or profession has its distinctive vocabulary. And we can’t avoid it. But at the same time, none of us knows the meaning of all words. Different words may be used by doctors, others by architects, still others by sportsmen or electricians. And even more confusingly, the same word can have different meanings, depending on the industry. 

So what can we do? If possible, let’s replace a difficult, little-used word with another, more popular, more familiar one. And if we choose to use it, let’s give its explanation – in parentheses, or again in a footnote or in the margin.

Short sentences

The fourth point: short sentences. Let’s simply avoid long sentences. The Polish language gives us the ability to lengthen sentences almost indefinitely – another comma, another conjunction, and we have a sentence half a page long. As Dr. Tomasz Piekot of the Simple Polish Language Workshop at the University of Wroclaw points out, the longest sentences noted when working on simple language had as many as 77 words! Think about it: reading with comprehension, you should have no problem repeating the last sentence you just finished reading. Would you be able to repeat a a sentence consisting of 77 words?

Also, avoid phrases that add nothing to the content, but only dilute the message, such as “hereby.”

Clear writing layout

Fifth point: imagine the regulations from the bank. What do you see before your eyes? Most likely a very small font and compact text. Even if these regulations were written in plain language, reading them would just be very unpleasant, uncomfortable. The advice? Very simple:

  • larger font so that you can read without using a magnifying glass;
  • clearly labelled and named chapters, points, subsections so that you can easily find the passage you are interested in;
  • and wide margins, allowing you to take notes freely.

Avoid difficult grammatical constructions

Sixth rule: avoid difficult grammatical constructions that are rarely used in everyday language, (e.g., participles, verb-nouns, the passive side and impersonal constructions). Instead of “the office that implements the project,” you can write “the office that implements the project.” Instead of “the decision was made by Office XYZ,” “Office XYZ decided.” Instead of “no legible signatures were made by the applicant to the contract”, “You did not sign the contract legibly”. Instead of “Therefore, I am inquiring about…” – “Therefore, I am inquiring about…”.

Simple language in practice

Are these all the clues? Certainly not. But the application of at least these six, will already make the text very easy to understand. At the same time, with these clues in mind, We will begin to see places and ways to simplify the text even more.

Now let’s try applying these tips to the example from the beginning of the video:

“Dear Ms Y and Mr Z, Thank you for sending your letter to our City Hall. Unfortunately, we can’t accept it. As the law says* you should sign the letter by hand. The letter you submitted has only a computer signature. Ms Y, Mr Z and your attorney didn’t sign the letter by hand. We can solve this problem in two ways:

  1. You can come to the Office with your attorney. You will sign the letter on the spot.
  2. You can send the same letter to us again, but this time with handwritten signatures. After signing, the Office will be able to accept the letter.

*Article 63 of the Code of Administrative Procedure (Journal of Laws of 2000 No. 98, item 1071 as amended).

You have the right to simple language, sign language or Braille content

And finally, a very important tip! Based on paragraph… No, no! We will not talk like that. 🙂 But the truth we have a reminder for you, regarding the law.

Otóż w roku 2019 weszła w życie ustawa, która nakazuje różnym instytucjom, np. bankom, przygotowanie pism dla klientów właśnie w postaci prostego języka. I to samo rozporządzenie nakazuje również przetłumaczenie pism na język migowy dla osób głuchych czy niedosłyszących, oraz przepisanie treści na alfabet Braille’a dla osób niewidomych. Ale w każdym wypadku jest to na prośbę klienta, a sama instytucja ma pewien czas na spełnienie tej prośby.

And what is the legal the basis for such action? It is here you can see it, next to it, I will not bore you with reading it. (Provision in force in Poland: Act of 19th July 2019 on Ensuring Accessibility for Persons with Special Needs. Journal of Laws. 2019 item 1696).

Why do I mention it? Because experience shows that many people sign various, very important letters, without understanding them. It could be about a loan or credit, maybe about buying or selling an apartment, or agreeing to some form of medical treatment. Whatever you sign, you need to know what it is. You need to know what you are agreeing to – or not agreeing to – and what the consequences might be. And if you don’t understand something – ask. Ask for clarification. And if possible – ask for simpler language, or if you are deaf or blind – for a sign language or Braille version.

More about simple language

So much for today’s episode of “What Do You Know About the Deaf?”. Want to learn more about plain language? In the description of this video, you’ll find the sources where we got our knowledge. Some of them are with sign language translation. And if you have ideas for other practical aids to make the text easier to understand, or know examples of texts that are hard to digest, Share them in the comments.

Sources in Polish, with Polish Sign Language translation:

Skip to content