A Word About Language

It Pays to Increase Your Word PowerI’ve spent a good portion of this week writing about WCAG 3.0, the third version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. As the name states, WCAG is a set of guidelines – not rules – about how to implement digital accessibility: making websites, apps and other digital products accessible to people with disabilities. Nevertheless, it has become a de facto standard, often incorporated into the ways organizations comply with laws about disability discrimination.

WCAG 3.0 is a very considerable variation from WCAG 2.0, which was published in December 2008. In the intervening 14 years, shortcomings in WCAG have come to light and the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) felt it was time for a complete overhaul.

One of the chief criticisms of WCAG 2.x (first came WCAG 1.0, then WCAG 2.0, 2.1 and, most recently, WCAG 2.2) was about language. WCAG is expressed in what is often very dense, semi-legalese language, which aims to be precise and often ends up being barely comprehensible. This makes it hard for even experts to engage with, and drives away designers, developers and content authors, as well as the decision makers who authorise the effort that has to go into fixing accessibility problems.

It’s also become apparent that WCAG is not very useful for assessing or addressing accessibility problems caused by the way language is used in digital products. Some websites are written in such dense language they can barely be understood by articulate fluent English speakers, let alone people who have mild cognitive or intellectual disabilities, any kind of reading trouble, low levels of education, or who speak English as a second language.

This is really important, because many products and services that have legal, medical or financial implications are delivered digitally. WCAG does acknowledge this, with being Understandable one of the four basic principles on which it’s based. There are requirements relating to identifying the language used, jargon and slang, abbreviations, pronunciation, reading level, and making sure that people know what they’re doing and can undo things when they get it wrong.

Yet, these leave a lot of unanswered questions and too much open to interpretation. If a website’s intended readership is medical professionals, shouldn’t content be able to use precise medical terminology, even if that is confusing to other people? Should an app designed for young people avoid all slang and end up dry as dust? What standard should be set as a basic reading level? And in what language? When  does an acronym stop being an acronym and become a word in its own right – or should we always spell out radar and scuba?

WCAG 3.0 sets out to address this with a single new Guideline 3.2, “Use common clear words”, allowing an exception for “Technical documents that provide a clear language summary”. The expected outcome is that web content “Uses common words to reduce confusion and improve understanding.”  WCAG 3.0 has a structure that includes “How Tos”, a set of techniques for achieving the outcome and thus conforming to the guideline.

It should be noted that WCAG 3.0 is a Working Draft, very much a work in progress. Personally, I think it will be at least five years before it is anywhere near ready to be accepted as a usable standard. Even so, I think the “Use common clear words” guideline remains problematic.

What does “common” mean? What is “clear”? Common to what, and clear to whom? We’re still left with a subjective judgement as to whether any particular user can understand web content well enough to protect themselves from harm.

The How To gives an Example of Clear Words.

Before: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.

After: Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.

I can see that the After achieves brevity, but I’m not sure it provides greater clarity. Would anyone reading the After understand that “exercise, like brisk walking” could take the form of gardening or dancing? Is “at least 30 minutes” any clearer than “a half hour or more”? Does the After capture that this is advice given by an authority?

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and carp. What am I going to do about it? How am I going to answer my own questions? Fortunately, it’s part of the nature of my job to be part of the answer, not the problem, so my boss has suggested I join the W3C Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. Fair enough, I should put my money where my mouth is.

This has set me to thinking about whether I’m qualified to do this and, in turn, the role that language has played in my life.

To be clear, I accept that music and arts and other things are languages, or sets of languages, but I’m talking here about words, written and spoken. And don’t get me started on Mathematics as a Language.

I was born in the province of Fryslân in The Netherlands, in a city called Leeuwarden by the Dutch, Ljouwert by the Frisians and Liwwadden by the residents. Well, that’s a great start, isn’t it? I’m 0 years old and I’m already grappling with three languages. You have to understand that while Fryslân is technically a geo-political part of The Netherlands, it is culturally a nation to itself, part of a region that extended across the north of Europe. The thing is, the Frisians never stopped being Frisian. They never gave up their language, their heritage, their customs, clothing, sports, or their independence. There are still parts of Fryslân where only Frisian is spoken and written, regardless of ham-fisted attempts at Dutch imperialism.

In Liwwadden, the capital of the province, the residents developed a dialect called Liwwadders, or Stadsfrys, a Frisian inflected version of Dutch. Without it, it would be impossible to get anything done with the Dutch. That’s what I grew up speaking until the age of five, when my family migrated to Australia.

I have a theory that Liwwadders is to both Dutch and Frisian what Australian is to English: an accented, adapted and vernacular version of the parent language that has a deliberately anti-formal quality to it. Bugger ’em if they can’t take a grapke.

Importantly, in Australia – specifically Claremont, Tasmania – I grew up speaking Liwwadders and reading Dutch at home, while speaking Australian and reading English at school. I should add that, at the time, I didn’t know I was speaking Liwwadders, I thought I was speaking Dutch. It was only when I went back to The Netherlands when I was 17 and stayed with a Dutch family that I realised I was speaking “country yokel”. Honestly, I had no idea those words we used every day were swear words to the Dutch.

Growing up with two sets of languages wasn’t particularly unusual at my schools. Lots of kids spoke Greek, Polish, Italian, Croatian – yes, mostly European languages – at home, and English at school. Being northern European looking, I didn’t even get the wog treatment that Mediterranean kids got. Being bilingual, or multilingual, was normal.

Incidentally, one of my first big jobs as a one man web design and development agency was for the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO), which at the time was keen to support more languages education in public schooling (and I’m sure still is). I built a Languages in Education website for them that was very popular and I’d like to think might have had an impact, even though much more support for bilingual education is still needed.

I’m now 63, and I still speak and read Dutch, Liwwadders and a smattering of Frisian, for which I will be eternally grateful and of which I remain steadfastly proud. My feeling is that my childhood set me up for a facility with languages that bore much fruit later.

At high school, my top marks were in French and German, both of which I can read fairly well now, but not speak at all well, nor understand when spoken to. Travelling overseas, it was very handy being able to read street signs in French, but my conversational abilities remained laughable.

You could say language got me into tertiary education. In Tasmanian public schooling, you go to a separate school after High School to study for the Higher School Certificate and matriculation to university. At Hobart Matric, I knew you could do it in two years, so I spent the first year mostly surfing (don’t ask, I can’t even swim!), thinking I’d do the required work in my second year. It turned out they could turf me out after first year if my results were sufficiently poor. The only first year subject I passed was Dutch, which thankfully got me back in for my second year, when I knuckled down.

Immersion in language makes a big difference. When I travelled to Mexico, I went first to the Baja Peninsula, not far south of California, where most people speak English well, although the accent threw me sometimes (apologies to the telephone service operator who I thought was saying “Pahía”, when she was actually saying “Pay here”).

It was when we went to Guadalajara, where much less English was spoken, that my facility with languages became really useful. Spanish is a very sensible language where words are mostly spoken as they are written with visual cues for less straightforward pronunciation. And Mexican Spanish doesn’t have some of the quirks of the language spoken in Spain, so it wasn’t hard to work out where the autobús marked Zoológico was going to take me. I also found some synchronicity between Spanish and Dutch. “Meubel” means furniture in Dutch and, how about that? – a Mexican meubleria sells furniture. While I was there, I became quite adept at deciphering Spanish. Since then, I can hardly remember a thing.

Immersion was also the key to my learning sign language. When I moved to Sydney in the early 80s, after a year on the road with Tasmanian theatre-in-education company TUK, I auditioned for similar companies. My mime skills didn’t quite impress Geoffrey Rush enough to get me into Magpie Theatre, but they came in very handy when I auditioned for the (then) NSW Theatre of the Deaf. Apart from showing off my guitar playing and (ahem) singing, I had to do some extended improvisation with four deaf actors, using only a combination of sign and gesture.

I have rarely felt so comfortable at an audition. Being hard of hearing myself (something I didn’t tell them), non-verbal communication came easily to me, and I got the job. I was then required to rehearse two school shows and learn Auslan – in six weeks! Talk about a crash course – every day was spent communicating in sign until it felt weird when I wasn’t using it. I still sign, not as fluently, but a few years ago I discovered it still came naturally to me when I helped out a Deaf man at the supermarket. He was mightily surprised, and we chat often now.

So, here I am now, a Technical Content Writer at a global digital accessibility agency, and language is still my bag. I’ve found myself writing about language quite a lot in my recent book reviews, marvelling at the way writers use it for effect and impact. I’ve also written recently about the role language plays in ableism, that form of discrimination that’s both largely unconscious and completely devastating.

In my day to day work, what I write mostly focuses on how to make web content accessible, expressed in a way that makes sense to accessibility auditors and engineers. This requires an understanding of programming languages as much as clear, actionable English. Whether or not you include markup and styling as programming languages, it still takes some skill to provide plain English instructions for using HTML, CSS and JavaScript to implement accessibility, knowing that those people have to use those instructions to tell designers, developers and content authors what to do.

Maybe I am qualified to join that W3C Working Group. Maybe I can contribute directly to writing the How To for WCAG 3.0 Guideline 3.2 Clear Words, and maybe I can use my words to help to make the digital world that much more accessible.

The image accompanying this post is of the cover of It Pays to Increase Your Word Power, a collection of columns in Reader’s Digest to which I credit much of my childhood interest in words and language.

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