“English is tough… but it can be taught through thorough thought though”– Did you understand that at first sight? Neither did we! On 24 September, the ELRC Technology Workshop “Simplify Language – Capture Audience” put a spotlight on how to achieve text simplification and create easy-to-understand language in order to support social inclusion and improve accessibility of information. The record number of more than 170 registrations proved that this topic matters to many of us.
During her opening address, June Lowery-Kingston, Head of Unit "Accessibility, Multilingualism, Safer Internet" from DG Connect, highlighted the importance of "a Union of equality", where information is accessible and understandable to everyone – and where nobody is left behind, including people with disabilities. She explained that the availability of easy-to-read material is essential for both the public and private sector. But don’t we all know how difficult it can be to explain things in an easy and comprehensive way? Then it’s probably no surprise that the production of simple text is anything but simple. And this is where language technology (LT) can help.
The following presentation gave Anna Matamala from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) the opportunity to set the scene by presenting the key challenges and the status quo of easy-to-understand language training and practices all across Europe. She highlighted how standardisation and research are crucial to improve information accessibility for everyone, including the general public, citizens with cognitive or reading disabilities but also lay audiences, elderly, migrants, or language learners.
Then, the audience gained insights into latest developments and projects in the field of easy-to-understand language. Besides recent evaluation practices and future prospects for automatic text simplification, the speakers also presented a number of tools and frameworks, such as the Easy Reading browser extension, the NLP tool “AMesure platform” and the “ASD-STE100 Specification”. The latter refers to a set of writing rules and a dictionary of controlled vocabulary initially used in the airline industry, then extended to other industries, to produce technical text easy to understand. Most interestingly, this “Simplified Technical English” (STE) was developed in the early 80s to help users of aircraft maintenance documentation written in English understand what they were reading – a critical point, as misunderstandings can have severe consequences in this context. The event concluded with an open discussion, inviting all participants to share their feedback and to pose their questions to the experts.
Overall, one of the key takeaways of this workshop was that “there is no such thing as an average user”, as one of the speakers pointed out. Besides the difficulty of producing easy-to-understand information, the complexity assessment of a document, based on several items including (too) long sentences and complicated terms, can also be challenging. However, thanks to recent research and solutions as presented during the workshop, LT can significantly contribute towards making information accessible and understandable for each and every one of us. We would like to thank all speakers and participants for their valuable contributions! Further information is available on the event website here.
P.S.: Fancy producing an easy-to-read version of this article? Please send your simplified version to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will include it in our next edition!