The comprehensibility of plain language for second language speakers of English at a South African college of further education and training

Coetzee, Sarah-Jane (2019-04)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2019.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Plain language has existed in various forms and guises for more than 2000 years (Garner 2009: 40-41; Petelin 2010: 207). Although no consensus exists on a single definition of ‘plain language’ or how best to achieve plain language, plain language is a purportedly effective means for improving communication. The use of plain language is commonplace in many countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom, and might be considered beneficial to citizens by virtue of the fact that many governments legislate its use. South Africa is one of the countries that has embraced plain language by incorporating it into various pieces of legislation in an effort to protect the consumer. However, the South African population generally has low literacy and education levels, and the majority of the population has an L1 other than English, the language in which most documents in the financial and other service-delivery sectors appear. What is considered plain English by L1 speakers of English may differ significantly from what second language (L2) speakers of English consider plain language (Cutts 2013). However, insufficient information exists on the effectiveness of plain English for speakers of L1s other than English (Lee 2014; Thrush 2001). Furthermore, the ability of plain language to render comprehensible English texts in contexts of multilingualism and multiculturalism warrants investigation (Cornelius 2015) – an important consideration in South Africa where English is the lingua franca of the multilingual, multicultural population. This study investigated the comprehensibility of a plain English text for non-L1 speakers of English. The participants were L1 speakers of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa at a Western Cape college of further education and training, which has English as sole language of learning and teaching. An authentic text on the topic of funeral insurance, which is germane to a large portion of the population (Finmark South Africa 2016: 5), was selected and an analysis of the text revealed that it was a plain English text. The cloze test procedure was selected as the method of analysis. This is a commonly used technique which determines the test-taker’s comprehension of written language. A cloze test was employed in which every seventh word was deleted from the text; participants were given the text with 100 deletions indicated on the page and were required to fill in the missing words. The results of the study indicate that all three L1 groups (Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa) showed poor comprehension of the text (average scores for the three groups combined were <50%), but that the comprehension of the English L1 speakers was better than that of the English L2 speakers, although not statistically significantly so in the case of the L1 Afrikaans groups. This suggests that the criteria or guidelines for writing in such a way that the resultant text is plain (which were developed for and tested with English L1 speakers in countries in which English is the most widely spoken L1, such as the United States and United Kingdom), is not sufficient for the South African context where English is the lingua franca and the language of preference, but the L1 of less than 10% of the population (Statistics South Africa 2012: 24). The inadequacy of some of the plain language techniques can serve as an immediate warning to plain language practitioners to avoid a blanket, uncritical application of these guidelines as they do not necessarily cater sufficiently for South African target audiences, particularly those who need them most.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Gewone taal (sogenaamde ‘plain language’) bestaan al vir meer as 2000 jaar in verskillende vorme (Garner 2009: 40-41; Petelin 2010: 207). Alhoewel daar nie konsensus is oor die definisie van ‘gewone taal’ of hoe om gewone taal te bewerkstellig nie, is die gebruik van gewone taal ʼn skynbaar effektiewe manier om kommunikasie te verbeter. Die gebruik van gew one taal is algemeen in baie lande, soos in die Verenigde State of in die Verenigde Koninkryk, en kan beskou word as voordelig vir burgers weens die feit dat baie regerings die gebruik daarvan in wetgewing ingeskryf het. Suid-Afrika is een van die lande wat die gebruik van gewone taal voorstaan en dit in verskillende wette ingesluit het in ʼn poging om die verbruiker te beskerm. Die Suid-Afrikaanse bevolking het egter oor die algemeen lae geletterdheids- en onderwysvlakke, en die meerderheid van die bevolking het ʼn eerste taal (T1) wat nie Engels is nie, terwyl Engels die taal is waarin die meeste dokumente in die finansiële en ander diensleweringsektore verskyn. Wat beskou word as gewone Engels deur T1-sprekers van die taal, kan aansienlik verskil van wat tweedetaal- (T2) sprekers van Engels as gewone taal bestempel (Cutts 2013). Onvoldoende inligting bestaan egter oor die doeltreffendheid van gewone Engels vir T1-sprekers van tale buiten Engels (Lee 2014; Thrush 2001). Voorts word navorsing verlang oor die vermoë van gewone taal om verstaanbare Engelse tekste te lewer in kontekste van veeltaligheid en multikulturalisme (Cornelius 2015) – ʼn belangrike oorweging in Suid-Afrika waar Engels die lingua franca van die veeltalige, multikulturele bevolking is. Hierdie studie ondersoek die verstaanbaarheid van ʼn teks in gewone Engels vir nie-T1-sprekers van Engels. Die deelnemers was T1-sprekers van Afrikaans, Engels en isiXhosa by ʼn Wes-Kaapse kollege vir verdere onderwys en opleiding, wat Engels as enigste taal van leer en onderrig het. ʼn Bestaande teks oor begrafnisversekering, wat relevant tot ʼn groot deel van die bevolking is (Finmark South Africa 2016: 5), is gekies en ʼn analise van die teks het aangetoon dat dit ʼn teks in gewone Engels was. ʼn Invultoets-prosedure (‘cloze test procedure’) is as analisemetode gebruik. Dit is ‘n algemeen gebruikte tegniek wat die toetsafnemer se begrip van geskrewe taal meet. ‘n Invultoets is gebruik waarin elke sewende woord uit die teks verwyder is. Deelnemers het die teks met 100 weglatings wat op die bladsy aangedui is, ontvang en moes die ontbrekende woorde invul. Die resultate van die studie dui aan dat al drie T1-groepe (Afrikaans, Engels en isiXhosa) swak begrip van die teks getoon het (gemiddelde tellings vir die drie groepe saam was <50%), maar dat die begrip van die T1-sprekers van Engels beter was as dié van die T2-sprekers van Engels (maar nie statisties beduidend in die geval van die Afrikaanse groep nie). Dit dui daarop dat die kriteria of riglyne vir skryf wat op só ‘n manier geskeid dat die teks wat ontstaan, in gewone Engels is (wat ontwikkel is vir en getoets is met T1 Engelssprekendes in lande waarin Engels die mees wydgesproke T1 is, soos die Verenigde State en die Verenigde Koninkryk), nie voldoende is vir die Suid-Afrikaanse konteks nie waar Engels die lingua franca en die voorkeurtaal is, maar die T1 van minder as 10% van die bevolking. Die ontoereikendheid van sommige van die gewonetaaltegnieke kan as onmiddellike waarskuwing aan gewonetaalpraktisyns dien om ʼn onkritiese sambreeltoepassing van hierdie riglyne te vermy, aangesien dit nie noodwendig voldoen aan die behoeftes van alle Suid-Afrikaanse teikengehore nie, spesifiek nie diegene wat gewone taal die nodigste het nie.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/105975
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