The rapid progress of Easy Language research in recent years has mainly focused on written Easy Language. However, the need for Easy Language applies not only to texts; it also concerns the language in spoken interaction. How can the concept of Easy Language be applied for this purpose?
In 2012, the first set of Finnish recommendations for Easy Language Interaction (the ELI guidelines) was published in the Haavoittuva keskustelu (‘Vulnerable Conversation’, eds. Leskelä & Lindholm) book, a research volume that compiled conversation analytical research on linguistically asymmetrical conversations. This set consisted of 45 recommendations for the more competent speaker, designed to promote co-operation between speakers of different linguistic levels. Almost a decade later, I have returned to the topic in my PhD thesis, which I plan to complete next year.
Our original ELI guidelines were divided into five sections: 1) Orientation and context of the speech, 2) Taking the co-participant into consideration, 3) Reciprocity and turn-taking, 4) Verbal means of speech, and 5) Checking and repairing. Each section contained several recommendations aiming to provide support for the challenges of linguistically asymmetric interaction. As these recommendations are rather new, they could be considered mainly as hypotheses waiting to be either verified or disqualified by research.
In my research I have focused on the ways in which Easy Finnish could be used in conversations. Using Conversation Analysis methods, I have analyzed data that has included different kinds of authentic conversations between adult persons with intellectual disabilities and the professionals who work with them. I have observed interesting interactional phenomena in the data, such as repairing comprehension problems and negotiating epistemics in conversations. Do the Finnish ELI guidelines provide support for the interactional challenges in these situations or should they be refined in some way?
Spoken language differs from written language
A few obstacles arise when we consider spoken Easy Language. Certainly, like written language, speech can be simplified. But language used in interaction and in authentic conversations functions differently to written language on paper. Speakers are usually unable to make conscious, thoughtful linguistic choices to favor simple vocabulary or structures, unlike writers of Easy Language texts, because speakers have to produce language spontaneously, in fractions of seconds. Speech does not provide much time for linguistic reflection.
Moreover, if speakers concentrated solely on their output, their sensitivity towards their interlocutor would suffer. And sensitivity seems to be a key factor in linguistically asymmetrical conversations. Sentences formulated perfectly in accordance with the Easy Language guidelines may be useless, however easy they may be, if there is a lack of trust between the speakers. To build trust in conversation requires much more than merely the linguistically simplest output.
Easy Language interaction is based on trust
Spoken Easy Language requires somewhat different recommendations to those for written Easy Language. The Finnish ELI guidelines perceive the aspect of trust as the starting point. There is no single magical method to gain trust, but there are several small means to show sensitivity towards the co-participant as well as willingness to bridge the linguistic gap between the speakers.
The ELI guidelines advise the more competent speaker to help the less competent speaker to become aware of the situation at hand: for instance, an everyday coffee table discussion or a formal conversation that has a certain institutional task. More competent speakers often overestimate the contextual knowledge of a co-participant with language barriers, and thus forget to offer enough contextual hints or advice. As a result of this, the participants may seem to participate in two different conversations without realizing it themselves.
The ELI guidelines also urge the more competent speaker to express their willingness to give the floor to the co-participant, let them lead the conversation at least occasionally and to be responsible for its progress. Constant conversational breakdowns or comprehension problems are often exhausting for the speakers. To avoid confusing situations, the more competent speakers often seek to guide the conversation with a strong hand and fill every moment with their own speech. The co-participant who needs Easy Language is easily left a passive listener whose initiatives are bypassed.
Sharing responsibilities, upholding reciprocity and cherishing sensitivity towards a co-participant who has limited linguistic and interactional capacities are by no means easy tasks in a linguistically asymmetrical conversation. But if they are successful, trust is built.
Persons with intellectual disabilities as equal contributors
An interesting aspect of my research concerns the epistemic rights and responsibilities in these conversations. Usually, speakers know the things that personally concern them, such as their own history or experiences, and are treated as epistemic authorities when referring to them. But persons with intellectual disabilities are not always treated as real “owners” of their personal matters. Their contributions are often met with hesitation and doubt, or even ignored. They are not seen as accountable for knowing the things that concern them, because they may confabulate (say things that are not true without consciously meaning to lie) or have a tendency to acquiescence (“yea-saying”).
How can people who may confabulate be held accountable for what they say? How can we believe their answers, if they seem to just want to follow someone else’s opinion? These are real, concrete problems for the more competent speakers whom the ELI guidelines are meant to help. At best, these guidelines can broaden the linguistic awareness of the more competent speakers in conversations involving persons with limited linguistic capacities. They may offer new ideas to bridge the language gap between unequal speakers. But even then, when providing support for the more competent speaker, they don’t automatically make the interaction equal. This has to be done by the people involved in each specific situation, and it must be done on their terms.
The writer: Leealaura Leskelä is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, prepairing her thesis on using Easy Finnish in spoken interaction. She has a long experience as Easy Language practitioner in the Finnish Center for Easy Language.
Leskelä, Leealaura (forthcoming): Showing knowing. Negotiating about epistemics in interaction between persons with intellectual disabilities and professionals. Journal of Interactional Research of Communication Disorders.
Leskelä, Leealaura & Lindholm, Camilla (2012) (eds.): Haavoittuva keskustelu. Keskustelunanalyyttisia tutkimuksia kielellisesti epäsymmetrisestä vuorovaikutuksesta [Vulnerable conversation. Conversation analytical research on linguistically asymmetrical interaction]. Helsinki, Kehitysvammaliitto.
Leskelä, Leealaura & Lindholm, Camilla (in review): Selkopuhe kehitysvammaisen henkilön kielellisen osallistumisen tukena [Supporting linguistic participation of persons with intellectual disability with Easy Language]. Proposed to M. Lindeman, M. Luodonpää-Manni, J. Paananen & C. Lindholm (eds.) Kieli, hyvinvointi ja sosiaalinen osallisuus [Language, well being and social participation]. Tampere, Vastapaino.
Lindholm, Camilla & Stevanovic, Melisa (forthcoming): Challenges of trust in atypical interaction. Forthcoming in Pragmatics & Society.
Matikka, Leena & Vesala, Hannu (1997): Acquiescence in quality-of-life interviews with adults who have mental retardation. Mental retardation 35:2, 75–82.
Schnider, Armin (2008): The Confabulating Mind: How the Brain Creates Reality? Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Sidnell, Jack & Stivers, Tanya (2013) (eds.): The Handbook of Conversation Analysis. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.