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Wycliffe Associates’ EasyEnglish
Rob Betts reviews a general-purpose controlled English system specially devised for people with English as a second language.
Half the world’s population is predicted to be speaking or learning English within the next ten years (Burleigh, 2004). This explosion of English usage is fuelled by an increasingly globalised culture and the rise of English as a medium of business and education.
However, most English speakers do not speak it as their first language, and many would benefit greatly from English texts written specifically with them in mind. This opens up enormous opportunities for controlled language systems that have international and cross-cultural applicability. Wycliffe Associates, a UK-based organisation, has devised such a system, known as EasyEnglish.
Wycliffe Associates (UK) produces Biblical materials for pastors, Bible translators and English teachers worldwide. We initially developed EasyEnglish as a tool for the production of Bible translations and commentaries. We are increasingly diversifying into both translation and origination of other materials (including those for people with learning difficulties).
There are, of course, other controlled language systems. One of these is AECMA Simplified English (Unwalla, 2004; Dodd, 2005). However, EasyEnglish is, as far as we know, the most highly developed general-purpose controlled English scheme for multicultural audiences.
EasyEnglish is a formally defined subset of standard English (not to be confused with IBM’s EasyEnglish system — now called EasyEnglishAnalyser — which was described by Bernth, 1997.) EasyEnglish is able to express complex or abstract ideas in simpler words and grammatical structures without significantly losing meaning. It does this by:
EasyEnglish also aims to communicate to readers from a very diverse range of cultural backgrounds.
After describing these features of EasyEnglish and noting the production tools used, we will compare EasyEnglish with two simplified English systems. We will end by critiquing EasyEnglish and briefly discussing two major challenges.
We have until now used a restricted vocabulary based on the Cambridge English Lexicon (Hindmarsh 1980), a graded compilation of high-frequency words. However, we are now introducing a new vocabulary with the aid of a frequency list based on the British National Corpus (www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk). We took the top 3000 words by frequency from this list and supplied our own definitions, which were based on a number of published school dictionaries. For each word, we chose the most frequently used meaning (or meanings). The list has been adjusted by experienced Easy-English writers in the light of our target audience, a significant proportion of whom are from the Third World, and who have a wide range of cultural backgrounds. For example, we use few abstract nouns (such as ‘strength’, ‘anger’, and ‘peace’) because some first languages spoken by potential users of our material have relatively few nouns of this type.
EasyEnglish comprises two levels. The simpler level currently uses around 1,200 words, and assumes a working knowledge of English as a second language sufficient to cope with most social and work situations. The more advanced level employs around 2,800 words and is directed at those with an intermediate level of proficiency in English.
Experience has shown that we can successfully translate the Bible and other, more general, materials with a vocabulary of 1,200 words without significant loss of meaning; the 2,800-word vocabulary at the more advanced level provides texts that exhibit a degree of style and sophistication. West (1950) states (primarily in relation to story-telling) that:
Selection of words is only part of the process of building a working corpus. Most words have multiple meanings, which is a potential source of confusion. We need to select those meanings that are suitable. This requires considerable understanding of the target audience’s use of English. For example, ‘fair’ can mean ‘beautiful’, ‘blond’, ‘unbiased’, ‘reasonably good’, ‘favourable’, ‘market’, ‘amusement show’ and ‘commercial exhibition’. EasyEnglish prefers the sense or senses that first come to mind when the term occurs in isolation; for ‘fair’, the simpler EasyEnglish level allows only ‘unbiased’.
The multi-functionality of many English words poses further difficulties. A word may be used as different parts of speech (for example, ‘wrong’ can be a noun, verb or adjective); the ‘-ing’ verbal inflection may be a participle (functioning as an adjective) or a gerund (functioning as a noun). This feature of English can prove very troublesome to second-language speakers.
Lexical considerations, however, are not the biggest concerns when designing an English system for second-language speakers. The following rather amusing example demonstrates this (Anon. 2002). The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel serves a community of people for whom English may well be a third or fourth language. The outpatients department displayed this notice:
The problem here is not only (or even primarily) vocabulary. Probably only two words (‘anticoagulation’ and ‘phlebotomist’) need replacement or explanation. The real problem is grammar. The sentence is too long and the train of thought is convoluted. In addition, the notice seems to assume prior knowledge of certain facts (that is, there appears to be implicit information). Restricting vocabulary is not enough; attention must be paid to simplifying grammar and sentence structure, and to making any implicit data explicit.
EasyEnglish’s grammatical structure is designed with one goal in mind: clarity. The structure is based on work done by Wycliffe Associates member Karen Bennett (Bennett, undated). Bennett studied sample English texts to see what made them complex. For example, Readers’ Digest texts (designed as easy-reading texts) were found often to use complex sentence structures. Bennett concluded that complexity is determined more by the number of ‘idea units’ or ‘units of meaning’ per sentence than by vocabulary. She developed a simplified grammatical system based on these findings and on her own experience as both a second-language speaker and a teacher of English.
EasyEnglish imposes limits on:
Nesting is an important feature of English and can be explained by the following example:
This complex sentence ‘nests’ clauses within its structure, shown in the following analysis:
Three nested clauses occur within the phrase ‘the man was a neighbour of hers’. Readers have to hold the entire contents of the sentence (including the three subordinate clauses) and their inter-relationships in their minds while assimilating its meaning. Second-language English readers may find this quite difficult, with a consequent loss of comprehension. Their difficulties may be increased by the fact that many of them have first languages that do not employ nesting to this degree. Even native English speakers can lose themselves in the intricate subordination that can be found (for example) in some academic and technical writing! EasyEnglish’s solution is to allow only one subordinate clause (that is, only one instance of nesting) per sentence. EasyEnglish might translate the above example as:
EasyEnglish avoids almost all passives, because they are relatively complex forms for second-language readers. There is an immense variety in the use of the passive voice in languages; some languages (including many of the 850 or so spoken in Papua New Guinea) do not use passives, and those who speak these as their first languages may find the English passive difficult to grasp.
EasyEnglish also avoids ambiguous grammatical forms. Pronouns that can refer back to more than one noun are avoided, and the genitive is restricted to forms that make the relationship between the terms unambiguous. For example, ‘the city of Thessalonica’ might be interpreted as a city in a district called Thessalonica; a better alternative is ‘the city called Thessalonica’. EasyEnglish also recognises and avoids ‘functional ambiguity’; for example, the sentence ‘He hit the man with the umbrella’ requires clarification.
On a broader scale, EasyEnglish asks for a logical flow of ideas. This goes beyond simply controlling vocabulary and grammar, and deals with the underlying way in which writers convey their ideas. Outlining the logical sequence of ideas is an essential first step in the road to clarity and precision, especially when translating from standard English. EasyEnglish translators are encouraged first to identify the basic idea units in a complex sentence or paragraph and then to arrange them in logical order. An example is:
We can identify no less than six idea units here:
Identifying and arranging the elemental idea units in this way enables the EasyEnglish translator to reassemble them in a series of short, simple sentences conveying a logical flow of ideas that builds the readers’ knowledge step by step. This process is as important as adhering to the rules of grammar and vocabulary. The above example might result in this EasyEnglish translation:
Note that there has been further consolidation and rearrangement of the idea units during the composition of the final EasyEnglish text. Two words not permitted in EasyEnglish (‘Clearances’ and ‘moors’) are also explained.
We also use well-established techniques, commonly used (for example) by Bible translators, to ensure that the meaning is clear to readers from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Such an approach ensures that culturally-specific metaphors and idioms are translated appropriately. This approach also requires us to make implicit information explicit. Implicit data is information the reader needs in order to understand the text, but which is not overtly stated. This omission is often because the writer assumes the reader has a similar cultural background, and can be expected to know the unexpressed details. EasyEnglish always expresses implicit data. For example, in 2 Samuel 15.32 we read of a man named Hushai coming to meet king David ‘with his coat torn and dirt on his head’. Our cultural knowledge informs us that Hushai had not met with an accident, but was displaying grief in the manner typical of a 10thcentury Palestinian! EasyEnglish texts explain such culturally specific details.
We use a variety of production tools, including a lexicon that lists permitted terms with their meanings. We have also developed computer tools to assess readability and conformity with EasyEnglish style dynamically.
One potentially important tool that has begun to be developed is a thesaurus. This would extend the functionality of our lexicon by:
It is easy to forget permitted (and potentially better) alternatives when writing, especially at the more advanced level, with its larger vocabulary, and the thesaurus would help the writer to use all the available suitable terms.
A major use of EasyEnglish so far has been Bible translation. Other easy-reading Bible versions (translations and paraphrases) exist that are suitable for second-language English readers. Two important examples are the Easy-to-Read Version (ERV) from the World Bible Translation Centre (2001) and the New Life Version (NLV) (Christian Literature International 1997). Comparison of our EasyEnglish version against these alternatives reveals some interesting and perhaps unexpected differences. For example, the NLV rendering of I Timothy 1.4 is:
The ERV translation of this text is:
The EasyEnglish version (1200-word vocabulary version):
The EasyEnglish version differs from the two alternatives in several ways. For example:
The NLV was specifically designed for second-language English speakers; the ERV also includes second-language English readers among its target audiences. Yet they differ significantly from the EasyEnglish version. In our view, the EasyEnglish version is the most suitable of these three in meeting the needs of those using English as a second language. This in turn suggests that EasyEnglish does indeed cater for our target audience better than the simplified English that underlies these versions.
However, we recognise that there are valid criticisms of our approach. Three issues spring to mind:
We may, in the future, decide to allow greater flexibility in applying the EasyEnglish rules. We might, for example, allow a larger number of passives and relax the limitations on the number of clauses. This could help the text to flow more smoothly and restore proper emphasis, but it will also complicate the EasyEnglish grammatical rules. This, in turn, will demand more from our writers and may well lead to other, different, failures in the resultant EasyEnglish texts. We have to strike a balance between the demands on our writers and the needs of our readers — a dilemma that any controlled language system has to face.
Two other major challenges face us. Firstly, we know that many people feel satisfied with our material, because they tell us. But how many actually understand it as we intended? We are beginning to explore comprehension testing with members of our target audiences, to establish how well our EasyEnglish materials actually perform.
Developing a corpus for EasyEnglish has been a second major challenge. We are confident that the new vocabulary we are introducing is a major step forward but, doubtless, much fine-tuning remains to be done. A special problem here is the great cultural and social diversity of our audience. We distribute our materials mainly through the Internet to around 150 countries, and we aim to serve those in both urban and rural locations. No single corpus serves everyone equally well. We have to have a ‘happy medium’ — but where to centre that happy medium is difficult to decide.
We need corpora derived from collections of spoken as well as written everyday English from different parts of the world, and this is an area that remains to be fully explored. One possible avenue might be to obtain literature in simple English (such as texts used in primary/secondary education) in many of our key user locations — Africa, India, South-East Asia and South America.
We believe that the explosion in global use of English opens up immense opportunities for the EasyEnglish system well beyond its present applications. Our major challenges are:
Overcoming these hurdles would enable us to realise the full potential of EasyEnglish in communicating across cultural and social boundaries worldwide.
Anon (2002). ‘Feedback’. New Scientist; 7 December 2002: 92.
Bennett, Karen M (Undated, around 1996) EasyEnglish Training Course. Rhyl, UK. Wycliffe Associates (UK).
Bernth, A (1997) ‘EasyEnglish: a tool for improving document quality’. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Applied Natural Language Processing : 159-165
Burleigh, J (2004) ‘English to be spoken by half of the world’s population within 10 years’, The Independent, 9 December 2004: 15.
Dodd, C (2005) ‘Taming the English language’, Communicator; Spring 2005: 32-34.
Hindmarsh, R (1980) Cambridge English Lexicon. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Ledyard, G, Ledyard, K (1997) Holy Bible. New Life Version with Topical Study Outlines. Canby, Oregon. Christian Literature International.
Unwalla, M (2004) ‘AECMA Simplified English’, Communicator; Winter 2004: 34-35.
West, Michael (1950) English Language Teaching. London. British Council. as quoted in Gauntlett J.O. (1966) Teaching English as a Foreign Language. London. Macmillan and Co. Ltd
World Bible Translation Centre, Inc. (2001). Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version. Fort Worth, Texas. World Bible Translation Center.
Rob Betts BSc DipLib is a database quality manager at Leatherhead Food International, with particular experience in indexing systems, vocabulary control and thesaurus building. He is also a member of Wycliffe Associates’ EasyEnglish team, and is currently developing EasyEnglish portions of Key Terms for Biblical Hebrew, a web-based electronic tool for Bible translators.
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