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Wycliffe Associates’ EasyEnglish

Rob Betts reviews a general-purpose controlled English system specially devised for people with English as a second language.


Half the world’s population is predicted to be speaking or learning English within the next ten years (Burleigh, 2004). This explosion of English usage is fuelled by an increasingly globalised culture and the rise of English as a medium of business and education.

However, most English speakers do not speak it as their first language, and many would benefit greatly from English texts written specifically with them in mind. This opens up enormous opportunities for controlled language systems that have international and cross-cultural applicability. Wycliffe Associates, a UK-based organisation, has devised such a system, known as EasyEnglish.

Wycliffe Associates (UK) produces Biblical materials for pastors, Bible translators and English teachers worldwide. We initially developed EasyEnglish as a tool for the production of Bible translations and commentaries.  We are increasingly diversifying into both translation and origination of other materials (including those for people with learning difficulties).

There are, of course, other controlled language systems. One of these is AECMA Simplified English (Unwalla, 2004; Dodd, 2005). However, EasyEnglish is, as far as we know, the most highly developed general-purpose controlled English scheme for multicultural audiences.

EasyEnglish is a formally defined subset of standard English (not to be confused with IBM’s EasyEnglish system — now called EasyEnglishAnalyser — which was described by Bernth, 1997.) EasyEnglish is able to express complex or abstract ideas in simpler words and grammatical structures without significantly losing meaning. It does this by:

  1. Restricting vocabulary
  2. Simplifying grammar
  3. Applying a logical structure to optimise comprehensibility.

EasyEnglish also aims to communicate to readers from a very diverse range of cultural backgrounds.

After describing these features of EasyEnglish and noting the production tools used, we will compare EasyEnglish with two simplified English systems. We will end by critiquing EasyEnglish and briefly discussing two major challenges.

Restricting vocabulary

We have until now used a restricted vocabulary based on the Cambridge English Lexicon (Hindmarsh 1980), a graded compilation of high-frequency words. However, we are now introducing a new vocabulary with the aid of a frequency list based on the British National Corpus (www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk). We took the top 3000 words by frequency from this list and supplied our own definitions, which were based on a number of published school dictionaries. For each word, we chose the most frequently used meaning (or meanings). The list has been adjusted by experienced Easy-English writers in the light of our target audience, a significant proportion of whom are from the Third World, and who have a wide range of cultural backgrounds. For example, we use few abstract nouns (such as ‘strength’, ‘anger’, and ‘peace’) because some first languages spoken by potential users of our material have relatively few nouns of this type.

Vocabulary size

EasyEnglish comprises two levels. The simpler level currently uses around 1,200 words, and assumes a working knowledge of English as a second language sufficient to cope with most social and work situations. The more advanced level employs around 2,800 words and is directed at those with an intermediate level of proficiency in English.

Experience has shown that we can successfully translate the Bible and other, more general, materials with a vocabulary of 1,200 words without significant loss of meaning; the 2,800-word vocabulary at the more advanced level provides texts that exhibit a degree of style and sophistication. West (1950) states (primarily in relation to story-telling) that:

Selection of meanings

Selection of words is only part of the process of building a working corpus. Most words have multiple meanings, which is a potential source of confusion.  We need to select those meanings that are suitable. This requires considerable understanding of the target audience’s use of English. For example, ‘fair’ can mean ‘beautiful’, ‘blond’, ‘unbiased’, ‘reasonably good’, ‘favourable’, ‘market’, ‘amusement show’ and ‘commercial exhibition’. EasyEnglish prefers the sense or senses that first come to mind when the term occurs in isolation; for ‘fair’, the simpler EasyEnglish level allows only ‘unbiased’.

The multi-functionality of many English words poses further difficulties. A word may be used as different parts of speech (for example, ‘wrong’ can be a noun, verb or adjective); the ‘-ing’ verbal inflection may be a participle (functioning as an adjective) or a gerund (functioning as a noun). This feature of English can prove very troublesome to second-language speakers.

 

Figure 1 ― Text processed by the EasyEnglish vocabulary checker

Red highlighting indicates non-permitted words, blue indicates words permitted only with certain meanings; green indicates words that are usually permitted, but may need validation (for example, for grammar); black words need no checking.

 

Simplifying grammar

Lexical considerations, however, are not the biggest concerns when designing an English system for second-language speakers. The following rather amusing example demonstrates this (Anon. 2002). The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel serves a community of people for whom English may well be a third or fourth language. The outpatients department displayed this notice:

If you are attending another clinic and having your blood taken with your yellow book when there is not an anticoagulation clinic going on downstairs please check with the phlebotomist and take a ticket as you would normally.

The problem here is not only (or even primarily) vocabulary. Probably only two words (‘anticoagulation’ and ‘phlebotomist’) need replacement or explanation. The real problem is grammar. The sentence is too long and the train of thought is convoluted. In addition, the notice seems to assume prior knowledge of certain facts (that is, there appears to be implicit information). Restricting vocabulary is not enough; attention must be paid to simplifying grammar and sentence structure, and to making any implicit data explicit.

Sentence structure

EasyEnglish’s grammatical structure is designed with one goal in mind: clarity. The structure is based on work done by Wycliffe Associates member Karen Bennett (Bennett, undated). Bennett studied sample English texts to see what made them complex. For example, Readers’ Digest texts (designed as easy-reading texts) were found often to use complex sentence structures. Bennett concluded that complexity is determined more by the number of ‘idea units’ or ‘units of meaning’ per sentence than by vocabulary. She developed a simplified grammatical system based on these findings and on her own experience as both a second-language speaker and a teacher of English.

EasyEnglish imposes limits on:

Nesting is an important feature of English and can be explained by the following example:

My sister said that the man who was serving in the shop while we were buying cakes that my son had asked for was a neighbour of hers.

This complex sentence ‘nests’ clauses within its structure, shown in the following analysis:

My sister said that
  the man
    who was serving in the shop
      while we were buying cakes
        that my son had asked for
  was a neighbour of hers.

Three nested clauses occur within the phrase ‘the man was a neighbour of hers’. Readers have to hold the entire contents of the sentence (including the three subordinate clauses) and their inter-relationships in their minds while assimilating its meaning. Second-language English readers may find this quite difficult, with a consequent loss of comprehension. Their difficulties may be increased by the fact that many of them have first languages that do not employ nesting to this degree. Even native English speakers can lose themselves in the intricate subordination that can be found (for example) in some academic and technical writing! EasyEnglish’s solution is to allow only one subordinate clause (that is, only one instance of nesting) per sentence.  EasyEnglish might translate the above example as:

My sister and I were buying cakes in a shop, because my son had asked for them. There was a man serving in the shop. My sister said that this man was one of her neighbours.

Passive Voice

EasyEnglish avoids almost all passives, because they are relatively complex forms for second-language readers. There is an immense variety in the use of the passive voice in languages; some languages (including many of the 850 or so spoken in Papua New Guinea) do not use passives, and those who speak these as their first languages may find the English passive difficult to grasp.

Ambiguous grammatical forms

EasyEnglish also avoids ambiguous grammatical forms. Pronouns that can refer back to more than one noun are avoided, and the genitive is restricted to forms that make the relationship between the terms unambiguous.  For example, ‘the city of Thessalonica’ might be interpreted as a city in a district called Thessalonica; a better alternative is ‘the city called Thessalonica’. EasyEnglish also recognises and avoids ‘functional ambiguity’; for example, the sentence ‘He hit the man with the umbrella’ requires clarification.

Applying a logical structure

On a broader scale, EasyEnglish asks for a logical flow of ideas. This goes beyond simply controlling vocabulary and grammar, and deals with the underlying way in which writers convey their ideas. Outlining the logical sequence of ideas is an essential first step in the road to clarity and precision, especially when translating from standard English. EasyEnglish translators are encouraged first to identify the basic idea units in a complex sentence or paragraph and then to arrange them in logical order. An example is:

Even the glorious loneliness of the Highland’s wonderful landscape of loch, moor and mountain is largely a product of the `Clearances’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, which caused so much hardship and suffering.

We can identify no less than six idea units here:

  1. The landscape of the Highlands consists of loch, moor and mountain.
  2. This is a wonderful landscape.
  3. The landscape is gloriously lonely.
  4. The loneliness is largely a product of the Clearances.
  5. The Clearances occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  6. The Clearances caused much hardship and suffering.

Identifying and arranging the elemental idea units in this way enables the EasyEnglish translator to reassemble them in a series of short, simple sentences conveying a logical flow of ideas that builds the readers’ knowledge step by step. This process is as important as adhering to the rules of grammar and vocabulary. The above example might result in this EasyEnglish translation:

The Highlands of Scotland consist of lakes, mountains and moors. The moors are flat, empty lands where no trees grow. This land is wonderful and magnificent because it is so empty. However, many people once lived there. But in the 18th and 19th centuries the owners of the land forced these people to leave. These people suffered many difficulties and troubles. People call these terrible events ‘the Clearances’.

Note that there has been further consolidation and rearrangement of the idea units during the composition of the final EasyEnglish text.  Two words not permitted in EasyEnglish (‘Clearances’ and ‘moors’) are also explained.

Communicating across cultural boundaries

We also use well-established techniques, commonly used (for example) by Bible translators, to ensure that the meaning is clear to readers from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Such an approach ensures that culturally-specific metaphors and idioms are translated appropriately. This approach also requires us to make implicit information explicit. Implicit data is information the reader needs in order to understand the text, but which is not overtly stated. This omission is often because the writer assumes the reader has a similar cultural background, and can be expected to know the unexpressed details. EasyEnglish always expresses implicit data. For example, in 2 Samuel 15.32 we read of a man named Hushai coming to meet king David ‘with his coat torn and dirt on his head’. Our cultural knowledge informs us that Hushai had not met with an accident, but was displaying grief in the manner typical of a 10thcentury Palestinian! EasyEnglish texts explain such culturally specific details.

Production tools

We use a variety of production tools, including a lexicon that lists permitted terms with their meanings. We have also developed computer tools to assess readability and conformity with EasyEnglish style dynamically.

One potentially important tool that has begun to be developed is a thesaurus. This would extend the functionality of our lexicon by:

  1. Listing EasyEnglish equivalents for words or phrases not allowed
  2. Prompting the writer with valid alternatives to permitted words or phrases
  3. Providing the writer with groups of related permitted terms (for example, nautical, cookery and agricultural terms) — a kind of ‘palette’ of terms useful for original writing (rather than translation).

It is easy to forget permitted (and potentially better) alternatives when writing, especially at the more advanced level, with its larger vocabulary, and the thesaurus would help the writer to use all the available suitable terms.

Comparison with existing easy-reading Bible translations

A major use of EasyEnglish so far has been Bible translation. Other easy-reading Bible versions (translations and paraphrases) exist that are suitable for second-language English readers.  Two important examples are the Easy-to-Read Version (ERV) from the World Bible Translation Centre (2001) and the New Life Version (NLV) (Christian Literature International 1997). Comparison of our EasyEnglish version against these alternatives reveals some interesting and perhaps unexpected differences. For example,  the NLV rendering of I Timothy 1.4 is:

They should not listen to stories that are not true. It is foolish for them to try to learn more about their early fathers. These only bring more questions to their minds and do not make their faith in God stronger. (41 words)

The ERV translation of this text is:

Tell those people not to give their time to stories that are not true and to long lists of names in family histories. Those things only bring arguments. Those things don’t help God’s work. God’s work is done by faith. (40 words)

The EasyEnglish version (1200-word vocabulary version):

Neither should they listen to false stories. Nor should they always be studying long lists of their families’ names from years ago. They should not believe that to study lists like that can help them. Those things only cause people to argue. Those things do not help God’s work. To do God’s work, people must believe him. (57 words)

The EasyEnglish version differs from the two alternatives in several ways. For example:

  1. Both alternatives use the passive voice (the ERV example above contains an instance of this).
  2. Both alternatives make use of abstract nouns not permitted in EasyEnglish (i.e. ‘faith’ in both examples).
  3. Both, to varying degrees, use longer and/or  more complex sentence structures (the first sentence in the ERV example  is longer than EasyEnglish would allow).
  4. Both use many words and meanings not permitted at either level of EasyEnglish. For example, ‘early’ in the NLV version means ‘ancient’, not a permitted sense in EasyEnglish; ‘family’ in the ERV is an adjectival use of this noun, not permitted in EasyEnglish.

The NLV was specifically designed for second-language English speakers; the ERV also includes second-language English readers among its target audiences. Yet they differ significantly from the EasyEnglish version.  In our view, the EasyEnglish version is the most suitable of these three in meeting the needs of those using English as a second language.  This in turn suggests that EasyEnglish does indeed cater for our target audience better than the simplified English that underlies these versions.

Critique of EasyEnglish

However, we recognise that there are valid criticisms of our approach. Three issues spring to mind:

  1. Perhaps the most troublesome issue is that EasyEnglish text tends to exhibit lack of flow, or ‘choppiness’, because of the restrictions on the number of clauses per sentence. This can force subordinate clauses to be promoted inappropriately to full sentences. This, in turn, easily upsets the balance of emphasis in the text and hinders readers from distinguishing between background and foreground information. The distinction between background and foreground data is a vital element of meaning within the text, which, if lost, can seriously mislead or confuse readers.
  2. Non-permitted terms often need to be replaced by phrases. This can introduce unwanted complexity and further disturb the balance of emphasis.  This is a major factor in increasing the length of a translated passage.
  3. Our rejection of passives can sometimes force us to find subjects for verbs when these are either not known or not important.

We may, in the future, decide to allow greater flexibility in applying the EasyEnglish rules. We might, for example, allow a larger number of passives and relax the limitations on the number of clauses. This could help the text to flow more smoothly and restore proper emphasis, but it will also complicate the EasyEnglish grammatical rules. This, in turn, will demand more from our writers and may well lead to other, different, failures in the resultant EasyEnglish texts. We have to strike a balance between the demands on our writers and the needs of our readers — a dilemma that any controlled language system has to face.

Major challenges

Two other major challenges face us. Firstly, we know that many people feel satisfied with our material, because they tell us. But how many actually understand it as we intended? We are beginning to explore comprehension testing with members of our target audiences, to establish how well our EasyEnglish materials actually perform.

Developing a corpus for EasyEnglish has been a second major challenge. We are confident that the new vocabulary we are introducing is a major step forward but, doubtless, much fine-tuning remains to be done.  A special problem here is the great cultural and social diversity of our audience. We distribute our materials mainly through the Internet to around 150 countries, and we aim to serve those in both urban and rural locations. No single corpus serves everyone equally well. We have to have a ‘happy medium’ — but where to centre that happy medium is difficult to decide.

We need corpora derived from collections of spoken as well as written everyday English from different parts of the world, and this is an area that remains to be fully explored. One possible avenue might be to obtain literature in simple English (such as texts used in primary/secondary education) in many of our key user locations — Africa, India, South-East Asia and South America.

Conclusion

We believe that the explosion in global use of English opens up immense opportunities for the EasyEnglish system well beyond its present applications. Our major challenges are:

  1. Adjusting our grammatical rules to allow greater flexibility, while not unduly complicating instructions to our writers.
  2. Further developing the tools to speed and ease our writers’ task (such as the computer-aided tools and the thesaurus).
  3. Fine-tuning our EasyEnglish corpus.
  4. Comprehension testing with our target audience.

Overcoming these hurdles would enable us to realise the full potential of EasyEnglish in communicating across cultural and social boundaries worldwide.

References

Anon (2002). ‘Feedback’. New Scientist; 7 December 2002: 92.

Bennett, Karen M (Undated, around 1996)  EasyEnglish Training Course. Rhyl, UK. Wycliffe Associates (UK).

Bernth, A (1997) ‘EasyEnglish: a tool for improving document quality’. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Applied Natural Language Processing : 159-165

Burleigh, J (2004) ‘English to be spoken by half of the world’s population within 10 years’, The Independent, 9 December 2004: 15.

Dodd, C (2005) ‘Taming the English language’, Communicator; Spring 2005: 32-34.

Hindmarsh, R (1980)  Cambridge English Lexicon. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Ledyard, G, Ledyard, K (1997) Holy Bible.  New Life Version with Topical Study Outlines. Canby, Oregon. Christian Literature International.

Unwalla, M (2004) ‘AECMA Simplified English’, Communicator; Winter 2004: 34-35.

West, Michael (1950)  English Language Teaching. London. British Council. as quoted in Gauntlett J.O. (1966) Teaching English as a Foreign Language. London. Macmillan and Co. Ltd

World Bible Translation Centre, Inc. (2001). Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version. Fort Worth, Texas. World Bible Translation Center.


Rob Betts BSc DipLib is a database quality manager at Leatherhead Food International, with particular experience in indexing systems, vocabulary control and thesaurus building. He is also a member of Wycliffe Associates’ EasyEnglish team, and is currently developing EasyEnglish portions of Key Terms for Biblical Hebrew, a web-based electronic tool for Bible translators. email: rbetts@btinternet.co.uk  


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