In Plain English: Promoting Understanding

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How we choose to structure messages can significantly impact how audiences interpret information. Understanding a target audience is the first step in using plain English for effective communication, as not all audiences respond the same way to the same messages. When it comes to communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, a direct communication style promotes understanding and increases reach among multicultural audiences. So, how do you effectively use plain English to construct readable, succinct messages?

Firstly, what is plain English?

The Plain Writing Act 2020 describes plain language as “writing that is concise, well-organised, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience”. The Plain Language Action and Information Network specifies that plain English helps people:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find the first time they read or hear it
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

In other words, messages written in plain English should be understood the first time they are heard or read. Writing that uses short sentences, common words, logical organisation and consistency are examples of this.

How can writing in plain English help reach CALD communities?

Writing in plain English eliminates or drastically limits confusion and misunderstanding of messages. When communicating with CALD communities, the aim is to focus on what you want the community to learn and what you want the community to do. After all, plain language is a way to optimise complex ideas so that the targeted audience can confidently grasp the full meaning of a message.

English language proficiency also plays a crucial role in understanding messages and knowing how to act on them. The CALD communities show differing needs and preferences in comparison to native English speakers when it comes to registering important messages. To support these needs, message construction requires more consideration to ensure comprehensive understanding and informed decision-making. Using plain language is an important tool in breaking down the literacy barrier and keeping the reader in mind. Addressing the reader’s need using concise and clear language means the information is accessible to all readers, no matter their literacy level, and therefore leads to a greater understanding of messages.

Plain language goes hand in hand with accurate translation. Source text originally written in plain language is more likely to result in a translation with a lower margin of error than text that has not been written in plain language. This is because technical messages can easily become unintentionally ambiguous or lose their meaning (polysemy and context of message), which can ultimately have far-reaching consequences. Health messages, for example, require extremely accurate translations to convey correct and accessible information. By engaging professional translators who understand the value in plain language, such messages can lead to more accurate translations for the intended audience.

A closer look at effective communication: COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of effective health communication in times of urgency. This is a challenge that we address through our 2M On Demand translation app. Using plain language for health messages that need to be quickly and accurately disseminated can ensure understanding. This is particularly important considering that migrants and refugees, who are among the most vulnerable to contract COVID-19, exist within CALD communities. According to WHO, language and cultural barriers result in limited access to information, meaning migrants and refugees are one of the hardest populations to reach. Considering that unclear information has been the main cause of COVID-19 outbreaks in the community so far, this makes writing in plain English even more of a necessity for message distribution.

Plain English COVID-19 update on iPhone

The Conversation asked multicultural community leaders in Australia how best to communicate COVID-19 advice to CALD communities. Their answers highlighted the importance of engaging with and understanding cultural context and values, tailoring messages to those values, and using outlets that are accessible to a variety of audiences. By taking the time to truly understand culturally diverse values, messengers are able to communicate in a way that resonates with and includes a target audience. Also, some members of CALD communities more often engage with different online outlets, which don’t include local Australian news channels. For example, the Chinese community often uses WeChat to communicate and find information. If Australian communicators were to share information via WeChat, they could increase their reach in the Chinese community and effectively deliver information.

What’s the takeaway?

It can be challenging to translate complex ideas into words that everyone can understand. Plain language simplifies and clarifies messages so that a wider audience can confidently understand and act on messages. Removing the barriers between communicators and readers indicates trust and loyalty, meaning your messages are having an impact.

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