The right to understand

21. November, 2001


Gunta Anca

Foto: AFI

Approximately 10% of people are unable to understand written text completely, and information must be translated into the specific form of literary language that is known as “Easy Language” if they are to perceive it. The government admitted three years ago that such publications are needed in Latvia, but so far only NGOs have done any work in this area.

Every person has the right to read and understand what is written. You may think that this goes without saying, but only until you meet someone who does not understand what he or she has read. Long sentences, complicated sentence structure, countless foreign words and, in some cases, “Latvianized” words that are very difficult to understand – all of these things can make it difficult to perceive text. Some members of society are cut off completely from the pleasure of reading. A study that was run in Sweden recently found that approximately 10% of residents could not fully understand written text. These were people with mental disorders, the elderly, and people who have been hearing-impaired since birth and who have thus not developed much of a vocabulary.

Easy Language is coming to rescue! More than 30 years ago, when Western European countries were increasingly emphasizing the process of democratization and the need to establish societies in which everyone had equal rights, particular attention was devoted to people with various disabilities. Everything was done to satisfy the individual needs of the human being, including the need for information. Easy Language texts are one way to help.

This is a special form of literary language. Information that is written in the Easy Language style is more easily perceived, thanks to various aspects of grammar, conceptual structure and the visual appearance of the text. In many countries of the world, these texts are used by immigrants who have not yet learned the local language to a sufficient degree. For some people, Easy Language texts are necessary throughout their lives so that they can understand political and social processes, monitor cultural activities, or simply gain a better understanding of humanity’s cultural and historical heritage. For others, Easy Language texts are simply a step toward a better and more in-depth understanding of language in the future.

The place where the Easy Language programme is most popular is Scandinavia. Several dozen publishing houses in Sweden produce these texts – some 100 publications in all, for people of varying ages and a wide range of interests each year. There are books about mushrooms, flowers, history, the arrival of the Euro in the market system and the Nobel Prize. There are practical books such as cookbooks, instructions on fashion and gardening, etc. A fairly large role is played by adaptations of literature. It may seem unacceptable that a famous writer’s text is simplified or transformed, but people who meet Easy Language users learn very quickly that for them, it is the only way to access literature. Newspapers in Easy Language have recently become popular, too – they are used by people to learn about what is happening at home and in the rest of the world.

The Cabinet in Latvia has adopted a conceptual document that is called “Equal Opportunities for Everyone”, and the plan was to produce Easy Language texts in Latvia beginning in 1999. Sadly, nearly three years have passed, and the responsible institutions – the Ministry of Welfare and the Ministry of Education and Science – have not been active in this area at all. The Easy Language Agency was set up to develop the process in our country and, most importantly, to give some people in Latvia their first opportunity to read. The agency employs professional philologists, teachers from specialized schools, employees of day care centers, etc. We have received important support from our colleagues in Sweden and Finland.

Our first serious project involved local government elections in 2001. We worked with the Central Election Committee to produce an Easy Language brochure called “Do you know how to vote?” Thanks to the support of the Soros Foundation – Latvia, we were also able to issue the brochure “What is a local government?”

The organization is currently involved in a variety of activities. We publish new Easy Language texts, we provide information to the public about the principles of the Easy Language system, we talk about the need to use such texts, and we organize training courses for professionals – social workers, teachers in special schools, etc.

There are but a few Easy Language publications in Latvia at this time, and readers have virtually no choice. We have lots of ideas, and we want to work further, though, and that allows us to hope that very soon now Latvia’s residents will also be able to access Easy Language information that is of interest to them. raksts

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