Note to gov: don’t make your texts too simple

HerkoDuring the meanwhile Leave a Comment

The Dutch government aims to keep their texts simple and clear. This as part of its policy to make its contents accessible without discrimination. In order to achieve this goal, a lot of texts and forms are being reviewed on their complexity and readability, guidelines are created on how to write readable simple texts and a lot of research on text readability is being conducted. Bureau Taal (The Language Agency) has written a very nice booklet on language readability and levels of understanding. Basically, there are 4 levels, with 2 sublevels. A1 being the most simple text, and D2 the most complex. European Research indicated that most government texts are written in C1 and C2 level, while only 15% of the population fully understands those texts.
A recent study questions these levels however. Using the popular text readability measuring methods a popular children’s book was measured, and the results were surprising to say the least: only 15% of adults would be able to fully understand the book (for the Dutch people who read this: the book was Pinkeltje…).
And now more critisism comes from an authoritative source: in the january edition of the Onze Taal magazine, by the Genootschap Onze Taal (the organization that manages the official Dutch language so to speak), commentators advice the Dutch Government not to go overboard on simplicity in favor of nuance. The reason for this criticism is a recent translation of the Dutch Constitution into simple Dutch, which -according to the commentators- loses too much of its intended nuance in the translation. This prompts them to caution the Dutch government not to take simplifying texts too far, and keep a fine balance between readable by the largest possible group and (specifically legal) clarity and completeness.

In my humble opinion a huge amount of work is still to be done to make normal texts readable for normal people. We all have a tendency to write complicated texts just because it conveys more professionalism. As if the less people who get what you mean, the more professional you are is the standard. Writing simple texts isn’t a goal tho, but a means to an end, and we shouldn’t forge that. Complex issues cannot be reduced to simple ones just for the sake of communicating them to the masses. So, I am glad for this signal -even tho I am rather excited about the translation of our Constitution into simple Dutch.

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