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Breaking comprehension barriers through Easy Language – A thesis on accessible communication and Italian ‚Lingua facile‘

In 2020, Luisa Carrer completed her MA in Applied Linguistics at the ZHAW and was awarded the 2020 Lionbridge Prize for an outstanding master thesis. Her thesis has now been published in the ZHAW Graduate Papers in Applied Linguistics series. In this post, she reports from her empirical research on the impact of text simplification strategies on reading comprehension by people with intellectual disabilities.

by Luisa Carrer, Research Associate at the IUED Institute of Translation and Interpreting

Reducing all barriers of comprehension is the ultimate goal of a very young and multifaceted research area called barrier-free or accessible communication. While studying for my MA in Applied Linguistics at the ZHAW, and working with an amazing interdisciplinary team on the project “Proposal and Implementation of a Swiss Research Centre for Barrier-free Communication” (2017–2020), I had the opportunity to get to grips with this fascinating area of study. My MA thesis, which I completed in early 2020 under the supervision of Prof. Susanne J. Jekat, eventually focused on one of barrier-free communication methods, that is, Easy Language (Leichte Sprache in German).

Luisa Carrer, Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am IUED der ZHAW
Luisa Carrer, Research Associate at the IUED Institute of Translation and Interpreting

What is Easy Language?

Christiane Maaß, one of the leading scholars on Leichte Sprache, defines Easy Language as the variety with maximally enhanced comprehensibility of any national language. This form of language is primarily used in written communication, although it can occasionally be used also in oral interaction. Texts can be originally produced in Easy Language or, more often, they can be a result of an intralingual translation process. Through successful implementation of language, medial and conceptual strategies formalised in strict sets of guidelines, Easy Language can optimise content complexity, minimise text difficulty and, ultimately, reduce barriers of comprehension for the benefit of a very heterogeneous target population; namely, all those of us who have difficulties understanding specialised or non-specialised written texts in Standard language. Recent studies show that low literacy affects large segments of the adult population, both in Switzerland and Italy. Against the background of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Easy Language is an essential instrument of inclusion for people who would otherwise be excluded from access to written information and full participation in society.

What was the purpose of my thesis?

In Italy, high readability and comprehensibility of texts of public interest have been the focus of academic research since as early as the mid-1970s, when seminal works published by Tullio De Mauro and other linguists from the Sapienza University of Rome addressed the growing communicative asymmetry between those who write (i.e. the experts) and those who read (i.e. the laypersons). Nonetheless, in recent years, no experimental research has addressed the impact of Easy Italian (or Lingua facile) on text comprehension by people with intellectual disabilities. My thesis aimed to fill this gap and addressed two research questions: first, I looked into what strategies translators employ when translating from Standard into Easy Italian and, secondly, whether those strategies in fact facilitate reading comprehension of Easy Italian texts by people with intellectual disabilities.
To answer my research questions, I used both quantitative and qualitative methods. I first compiled a small-scale corpus, including two health-related texts in Standard Italian and their translations into Easy Italian, as well as one health-related text originally written in Easy Italian by representatives of the target population. I then analysed the corpus texts in the context of their adherence to the European guidelines for Easy Language. For each text in Easy Italian, I carried out a quantitative analysis to measure text readability at the lexical and syntactic levels and, secondly, a qualitative manual analysis to measure text comprehensibility. This meant assessing deeper obstacles related to text organisation and information structure. Finally, I conducted a reading comprehension test to evaluate the actual degree of readability and comprehensibility of the texts at both literal and inferential level. Twenty-six Italian native respondents with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities participated in my empirical study.

What did I find out?

My text analysis showed that the texts contravened several European guidelines. Complex syntax, as well as insufficient paraphrasing and exemplification of low-frequency, abstract or specialist vocabulary were identified in all three corpus texts. My analysis also revealed inconsistencies at both macro and micro-typographical levels, ranging from layout issues at the sentence and textual levels to ineffective text-image relationship. What is more, the reading comprehension test results consistently confirmed what emerged from my text analysis and suggested that non-compliance with standards did in fact hinder respondents’ comprehension of the corpus texts.
Overall, my findings indicated that the European standards for Easy Italian are indeed essential to guide the translator’s work. On the other hand, it also emerged that adherence to guidelines may not automatically lead to ‘easy’ texts, and that comprehensibility can only be achieved through a careful consideration of each individual target communicative situation. In other words, intralingual translation, just like interlingual translation, has to be fully functional.
Finally, and crucially, my thesis highlighted the urge to produce regular publications in Easy Italian. Statistical techniques allowed me to verify a significant correlation between respondents’ reading frequency and their performance on inferential questions, proving that more experienced readers performed better than less experienced ones. Through a self-report questionnaire which I administered immediately before the reading comprehension test, I was also able to identify a correlation between respondents’ degree of reading appreciation and their reading frequency. The literature provides evidence that convenient access to reading material, regardless of a person’s reading ability, is associated with more frequent reading and increased motivation to read. Very little or no availability of reading materials in Easy Italian may impede this virtuous process. I believe this is a call to action that both Switzerland and Italy cannot ignore if they are to successfully implement the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

What next?

My thesis – Translating into Easy Italian : an analysis of health-related texts and their impact on comprehension by people with intellectual disabilities – aimed to shed some light on the concept of Easy Italian and advocated for greater attention from the academic community. It was also intended that research findings would promote dialogue between existing and future studies on Leichte Sprache and Easy Italian. This is particularly desirable within Switzerland’s multilingual context. The IUED barrier-free communication team is striving to pursue further research in Easy Language from a multilingual and contrastive perspective. In future research directions, we are also planning for more participatory studies. Involving people with intellectual disabilities collaboratively in the design and research questions prior to data collection, as well as actively seeking their support during all phases of the research, is crucial to gain insights into their needs and expectations.

Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to all respondents who participated in my empirical study, as well as to the associations both in Ticino and Italy who helped me to reach them. My thesis would have not been possible without their generous collaboration.


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Studierende über die Ausbildung in Barrierefreier Kommunikation am IUED

Barrierefreie Kommunikation kann auch studiert werden. Im Bachelor Angewandte Sprachen bietet das IUED Institut für Übersetzen und Dolmetschen Kurse zur Barrierefreien Kommunikation an.

Im Master Fachübersetzen ist „Barrierefreie Kommunikation / Audiovisuelles Übersetzen“ einer von drei Studienschwerpunkten. Dieser kann – wie der Schwerpunkt „Übersetzungsmanagement“ – mit zwei Studiensprachen, d.h. mit der Grundsprache und einer Fremdsprache, studiert werden (Sprachkombination AC). Mit Schwerpunkt „Fachtextübersetzen“ belegen die Studierenden mindestens drei Studiensprachen (Sprachkombination ACC).

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