Leealaura Leskelä: Speaking in Easy Finnish in linguistically asymmetric communication

When people with intellectual disabilities are asked about their interaction experiences, they often express a desire for spoken Easy Language. Speaking in Easy Language is not, however, easy. For example, professionals who work with people with intellectual disabilities often ask for advice on how to use accessible language with their clients. In accordance with their professional ethics, they want to interact in a way that strengthens equal participation. But in real, everyday conversations, this is sometimes challenging.

In Finland, professionals receive guidelines for spoken Easy Finnish in Interaction (ELI guidelines), which aim to help them speak to people with special linguistic needs. In my doctoral thesis, which was accepted in 2022 at the University of Helsinki, I analysed data from linguistically asymmetric conversations between people with intellectual disabilities and the professionals working with them. The research also aimed to update these guidelines to better meet the needs of these professionals in their daily interactions.

In general, spoken Easy Language is a topic that has not been studied earlier. However, it is currently attracting also international interest. For example, an ongoing Erasmus+ project called SELSI aims to produce guidelines for spoken Easy Language by gathering user experiences of spoken situations in five European countries (Slovenia, Italy, Sweden, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Conversations involving people with intellectual disabilities is also a topic that has not been studied much, but which is awaking interest among Conversation Analysts at the moment (about this valuable pioneering work, see e.g. Antaki et al. 2008; Chin 2022).

Challenges of guidelines for spoken language

The concept of Easy Language is generally widely established in Finland, but mainly concerns written language (Leskelä 2021). Thus, it was first assumed, logically, that the guidelines for written Easy Language could provide a working model for spoken Easy Language equivalents. This assumption was overturned when the work on guidelines for spoken Easy Language started in Finland, for several reasons.

First, using language orally is different to using it in texts. Speakers must make their linguistic decisions in fractions of seconds, whereas writers have all the time they need to carefully consider their linguistic choices. As a result, we often speak incorrectly or use language that is too difficult for our co-participant. On the other hand, speakers can receive immediate feedback from their co-participant and instantly simplify their speech.

Second comes the tricky question of who is responsible for the comprehensibility of the language. In written Easy Language, it is the writer who bears this responsibility, but in spoken situations, communication is based on reciprocity. Comprehensibility is created in cooperation, step by step, by responding to the other’s reactions, by offering interpretations, and by fitting one’s own contribution into this overall pattern. Somewhat paradoxically, the speaker who needs linguistic support is also responsible for comprehensibility.

We also have to take into account the consequences of and potential risks that may arise from following interactional guidelines. One obvious risk is that they may desensitise the linguistically more competent speaker to the individual needs and strengths of the co-participant. This may happen if the more competent speaker has not internalised the ultimate purpose of the guidelines but has learned a list of instructions on permitted and non-permitted language by heart.

The guidelines on spoken Easy Language must take all these issues into account. My research, however, has enabled me to conclude that the ELI guidelines have mostly overcome these challenges: most of their 45 recommendations seem to lead to functional, egalitarian interaction between speakers. For example, the recommendations for encouraging co-participants seem to really activate them and lead to more equal participatory opportunities. The recommendations on how to solve understanding troubles by using various repair initiators also appear to be effective, especially when the repair process is prolonged. Moreover, authentic data have shown that the recommendations to use one’s voice clearly and understandably have been successful.

Authentic conversational data as a point of departure

My research data consist of authentic, video-recorded conversations between adults with mild or moderate intellectual disabilities and the professionals, mainly job coaches, who work with them. I used the Conversation Analysis method to study these exchanges (e.g., Sidnell & Stivers 2013).

Table 1: Interaction types, participants, and duration of the research data.

Interaction types Participants Duration
Free conversations (6) Participants with intellectual disabilities (6)

Professional participants (5)

Task guidance sessions (4) Employees with intellectual disabilities (4)

Job coaches (4)

Interviews (6) Interviewees with intellectual disabilities (7)

Interviewers with different professional backgrounds (4)

Total: 16 conversations 12 participants with intellectual disabilities

11 professional participants



The participants in these data mostly knew each other, although not all of them interacted with each other daily. The speakers’ familiarity with each other has a significant effect on the management of cooperation during their interactions. Using spoken Easy Language in customer service, for example, can be more demanding than speaking with acquaintances. In addition, the data were rather limited, although this is not exceptional in Conversation Analysis, which aims to dig deep into the details of the interaction. In the future, however, I hope that the issues highlighted in this research can be examined using more extensive data.

Solving special conversational challenges

For the most part, the ELI guidelines seem to be working well, but I believe that they could still benefit from a few new recommendations. One such addition could be a recommendation on confabulation, which occurs in these kinds of data relatively often but is rare in other types of conversations. Confabulation means a situation in which the co-participant expresses something that cannot be true but is not consciously or intentionally lying (Schnider 2008). To explain this in more detail, I present a situation in my data, in which Harri, a man with Down Syndrome, is talking to Eeva, a job coach. They have been discussing several topics related to Harri’s work, free-time activities and personal relationships. They are about to end the conversation, when Harri, somewhat unexpectedly, initiates a new topic[1]:

01 Harri:          (1.2) I: go (0.5) (to do) some jobs
02                      (1.2)
03                      #ää#hh (1.8) ↑in Koi- ↑Koivula
04 Eeva:           @Koivula@ ((surprised voice))
05 Harri:          yea    (0.5)
06 Eeva:           you go to Koivula [to do some jo]bs,
07 Harri:                                           [>yea yea<      ]
08                      (0.5)
09 Eeva:           what jobs.                                                                                     
10 Harri:          doctor’s jobs.
11 Eeva:           ((laughing)) ↑haha d(h)octor’s jobs. $
12                      ↑well well what, .h well yes↓ .th do you know
13                      that for that-  one has to go to school for quite- a while
14                      (0.5)
15 Harri:          yes (.) ((nods)) school↑
16 Eeva:           $mm-m$
17 Harri:          mt (.)
18 Eeva:           $firs[t  one should:   ] (then)  go to school$↑
19 Harri:                  [(krhm)                ] (mt)
20 Eeva:            $you: have quite high-flying dreams here.$
(TvaS 1.8, free)

First (lines 1–3), Harri takes a topically surprising and linguistically somewhat unclear turn that needs to be negotiated by the speakers. In order to find out what Harri means by his sudden idea of going to do some jobs in Koivula, a place far away from their hometown, Eeva suggests repair using several repair initiators: she repeats the reference to a place (Koivula, line 4), “collects” what Harri has assumably said (you go to Koivula to do some jobs, line 6), and formulates a question clause (what jobs, line 9). She uses these as ways through which to initiate repair of Harri’s claim so that it can be seen as a valid contribution to the discussion they are having. The last initiator leads to a fuller answer from Harri (doctor’s jobs, line 10), which raises a new challenge, that of potential confabulation. Harri going to do a doctor’s job is highly unlikely, and it provokes an instant reaction from Eeva (line 11) as she bursts into laughter and repeats the turn with an amused voice, smiling. Such a reaction to a potential confabulation like this is related to their knowing each other – this reaction would probably not occur between speakers who do not know each other. After her laughter, however, Eeva softens her speech: her next turn includes restarts, dialogue particles, variations in intonation, and finally an explanatory turn of what Harri’s claim would require (one has to go to school for quite- a while, line 13). As Harri simply confirms the idea of going to school, Eeva repeats the explanatory turn with a smiling voice (first one should (then) go to school, line 18). In a way, these turns about going to school are to express to Harri: if you say this, this is where we end up. Harri’s reaction to this is ambiguous: he neither confirms nor denies it (line 19). The example ends with Eeva’s formulation (you have quite high-flying dreams here, line 20), in which she expresses how Harri’s claim of going to do a doctor’s job could be assigned to an acceptable and understandable context: it is a dream.

This example shows how difficult it can be to find an appropriate way to respond to a possible confabulation. At the same time, of course, it also emphasises how difficult it is to formulate recommendations for such special challenges of interaction. It is obvious that such delicate situations cannot be solved with simple or straightforward advice, such as using vocabulary familiar to your co-participant or explaining difficult words in a concrete manner (which, of course, are important basic recommendations in the ELI guidelines). The recommendation must be formulated on a more general level, and it must appeal to the ability of the linguistically more competent participant to recognise this as a conversational phenomenon. In my own research, I suggest the following guideline:

Give your interlocutor the opportunity to talk about their own issues as an expert. If you suspect that the interlocutor is saying something that is not true (confabulation), address it. State your doubts directly if you know the person you are talking to well and the situation allows you to speak directly. If you don’t know your interlocutor very well or the situation requires you to proceed with caution, ask questions and clarify the matter, but delicately.


The text is based on the writer’s doctoral thesis Selkopuhetta! Puhuttu selkokieli kehitysvammaisten henkilöiden ja ammattilaisten vuorovaikutuksessa [Speak Easy Language! Spoken easy language in interaction between persons with intellectual disabilities and professionals]. University of Helsinki.


Acknowledgements: I wish to express my gratitude to Prof. Charles Antaki, a pioneer in Conversation Analytical research on conversations involving people with intellectual disabilities, as well as to Dr. Deborah Chinn, to my opponent Prof. Niina Lilja, and to my supervisors, Prof. Salla Kurhila, Prof. Camilla Lindholm, Dr. Antti Teittinen and Dr. Ulla Vanhatalo.



Antaki, C., W. Finlay & C. Walton 2008. Conversational Shaping. Staff members’ solicitation of talk from People with an Intellectual Impairment. Qualitative Health Research, 17(10), pp. 1403–1414.

Chinn, D.2022: I have to explain to him. How companions broker mutual understanding between patients with Intellectual Disabilities and Health Care Practitioners in primary Care. Qualitative Health Research 32 (8–9), pp. 1215–1229.

Hepburn, A. & Bolden, G. 2013. The Conversation Analytic Approach to Transcription. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (eds.), Handbook of Conversation Analysis, pp. 57–76. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Leskelä, L. 2021. Easy Language in Finland. In C. Lindholm & U. Vanhatalo (eds.), Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe, pp. 149–190. Berlin: Frank & Timme.

Schnider, A. 2008. The Confabulating Mind. How the Brain creates Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SELSI = Spoken Easy Language in Social Inclusion. http://selsi.eu/en/

Sidnell, J. & Stivers, T. (eds.) 2013. Handbook of Conversation Analysis

[1] The participants are talking in Finnish, the translation into English is my own. The example is transcribed according to the conventional transcription system of Conversation Analysis (e.g., Hepburn & Bolden 2013), but simplified to some extent for ease of reading.