My country of residence votes today in what my partner has called “possibly the most boring German election in recent memory.” Sure the new Euro-skeptic party may be prove to be a rising star while the Pirate Party sinks (no pun intended), but with voter non-participation at an all-time high, conventional wisdom anticipates pretty much more of the same. There is, however, one new feature of this campaign season distinguishing it from years past – all of the major parties offer translations of their platform and websites in Leichte Sprache.
Leichte Sprache (“Simple Language”) is a variant of German developed by professionals who work closely with citizens with intellectual disabilities. It avoids long sentences, abbreviations and acronyms, jargon, foreign words, and Roman numerals. The text is often accompanied by images that convey meaning. Commonly used words supplant those used to signify sophistication; e.g. “allow” is preferred to “authorize.” Instead of “public transportation,” Leichte Sprache translators use “buses and trains.” Repeating the same word (“You should take these pills because these pills are the best”) is preferable to using synonyms (“You should take these pills because this medicine is the best”). Adverbs signifying time (“Maybe tomorrow it will rain”) are used in lieu of verb tenses (“Tomorrow it could rain”), because complex verb tenses should be avoided altogether. Figurative descriptions (“Rabeneltern” = “raven parents”) are replaced with literal ones (“bad parents”). The German custom of smashing compound words together without dashes or spaces (as in “Eheunbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung”) is also discouraged.
The closest English equivalent to Leichte Sprache is Simple English, which thusfar has only really gained traction on Wikipedia. While the Leichte Sprache Netzwerk focuses on the needs of citizens with intellectual disabilities, most advocates of Simple English in the U.S. list immigrants and other non-native English speakers as their primary target group. This is also a revolutionary idea. If you think the contractual agreement at iTunes is hard to wade through, imagine trying to read it in whatever foreign language you studied in high school.
Indeed, most expats I know who have only a basic knowledge of German tend to simply hand their contracts, tax forms, and newspapers over to a German friend for an explanation. For such people, Leichte Sprache versions would be a much more surmountable hurdle.
And anyone about to scoff at the idea of lazy immigrants trying to take the easy way out should try the following exercise. If you’ve studied little to no German, see how long it takes you to understand the Leichte Sprache version of this text:
Need a dictionary? Now compare reading that to reading the original version:
Which one would encourage you to at least give it a try? Naturally plenty of immigrants and expats strive and pride themselves on reaching the level of language used in the second text. But for those scientists and doctors and painters and cooks and economists who admit that foreign languages were never their strong point, something is far better than nothing.
Some have voiced concerns that this is a slippery slope toward an anti-intellectual populace; that all the poetry, intricacy, and subtlety of refined language will be thrown out with the bathwater if Leichte Sprache has its way. As a writer, I’ll be the first one at the barricades whenever anyone proposes that all public discourse accommodate the lowest common denominator. I’m the type to shudder at someone saying, “We’ve come 360 degrees” when they mean 180 degrees; at reporters saying “he’s a graceful person” when they mean “gracious”; at friends mistaking “literally” for “extremely.” Because when our language becomes shallow and meaningless, our ideas become shallow and meaningless.
But Leichte Sprache is no cause for worry because it is intended as an option, like Braille, not an imposed standard, like the Newspeak in Ninety-Eighty-Four. Far from stigmatizing intellectuals, it is a means of empowering groups of people that are all too often excluded from the discussion. And, perhaps most importantly, Leichte Sprache is a conscientious effort, a carefully constructed means of expression with many, many rules, whereas any shift toward linguistic parochialism among those of us without cognitive disabilities usually comes from an unwillingness to give much care or thought to what we say.
Indeed, it bears repeating that Leichte Sprache is not a matter of merely dumbing down the way we speak to certain people, with no concern for how patronizing we might sound. For anyone who thinks people with intellectual disabilities don’t notice when we’re talking down to them, there’s this:
The role of Leichte Sprache in today’s election may not be big enough to produce any surprises, but its implementation does recognize the rights of several minorities to participate in the political process. It also signifies Germany’s commitment to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, according to Leichte Sprache translator Andrea Tischner, the two parties currently in power are not doing all they could. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, have failed to translate much of their platform into Leichte Sprache, while the libertarian Free Democrats use too many big words in their translations. Interestingly, theirs has been the most diverse administration in the history of Germany—and possibly the world— with a female chancellor, a foreign-born vice-chancellor and an openly gay secretary of state. But according to Tischner, the best translations are offered by three of the four major parties on the left: the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Pirates. She didn’t offer any assessment of how the anti-immigrant, Nazi-apologist Nationalists are handling things, but I think we can guess.