Freitag, 13. März 2020

Plain Language and Diversity

It has been over twenty years now since I immigrated to the United States. However, a part of me was always an American, long before I ever set foot on this soil.

I thought that my excitement about this country would vanish at some point after I had gotten used to living here. However, 20-plus years later, it has not. The biggest reason for my continuing excitement is the one profound difference between the country where I was born and raised and the United States: exclusion versus inclusion.    

When I was growing up in Germany, the exclusion of “people like me”—individuals with immigrant parents—was the norm. (Unfortunately, not much has changed in that regard since.) The “natives” of the country generally referred to us bluntly as the “Ausländer” (foreigners) or (the children of) “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers). They hoped—and openly communicated to us—that one day we would “go back where we came from.” Most of us, however, never did because, among other reasons, we didn’t know where to “go back” to. We were born in Germany and had grown up there. Over time, the labels that were used for us changed. However, one thing remained the same—the certainty that we would never be a part of the German society, no matter what we accomplished, how much education we had, how we identified ourselves, or what contributions we made.

Until I immigrated to the USA, I could not properly articulate how my experiences in Germany affected me and why. This is because, despite Germany’s own awareness of its troubling history, and the country’s highly educated society, diversity knowledge is (to-date) very limited there. The country doesn’t even have a basic language to communicate many concepts related to the marginalization and exclusion of arbitrary groups. A term or concept such as “inclusion,” for example, only became known there after Germany passed its anti-discrimination laws in 2006. Until recently, the term was used in reference to individuals with disabilities only, because inclusion efforts based on ethnicity, race, or religion have been highly controversial and sensitive topics in Germany.  

It was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, while attending Western Michigan University, where I was first introduced to the language of marginalization and exclusion of arbitrary groups. What was most surprising to me was the amount of research data, knowledge, and scholarly work that is available in this arena in the USA. Credit for building this foundation and knowledge, naturally, goes to the countless African American scholars, civil rights leaders, and their allies. Thanks to them, I could better understand the dynamics of my experiences in Germany. I soon started to study the subject in-depth, conduct research, and write papers about the topic. The Kalamazoo community was integral to my growth and learning in this regard. It offered me a lot of opportunities to learn, get involved, volunteer and become a contributing member of my community. Kalamazoo was the first place where I truly felt at home.

After finishing my studies in Michigan, I moved to Washington, DC. In Washington D.C. I worked on a biological defense program at Georgetown University. My work involved reviewing hundreds of articles in several languages and compiling critical information into succinct reports that consisted of a few short paragraphs. Since our work involved extensive writing, we received a lot of training in this arena. Our primary instructor was a colleague who was very passionate about the English language and clear and concise writing. She taught us how to write reports using short sentences but did not sacrifice crucial information that our clients needed. We learned the value of plain language and the ability to communicate exactly what we wanted, concisely and transparently. One of the most challenging—and rewarding—aspects of this writing style was deleting redundant words and phrases from our reports. I became extremely fond of this style and only realized years later the deeper reasons behind it.

In Germany, we learned to strive for exclusivity in our society and culture—I also saw this idea reflected in our writing. You may have read or seen German-language pieces where a sentence can go over many lines— complex sentences that are extremely difficult to follow. Being exclusive in our writing was something that particularly the well-educated individuals among us strived for. –We didn’t know any better…

Around the same time when I was working at Georgetown University, President Obama passed the Plain Language Act (2010). When I researched the Act, it quickly dawned on me that The Plain Language Act is much more than “just another act.” It is a deeply meaningful representation of what I know and love about the United States.

Plain language, first of all, is a good business practice. It is a win-win situation for the writer as well as the reader. Leaving out redundant words and constructing easy-to-understand sentences saves time and money. However, there is much more to the Plain Language Act than that. Plain language is also about access and inclusion. Plain language is accessible to more people because it is easier to understand and it lessens the chance for misunderstandings and the need for clarifications.

Access and inclusion—both are critical to our government agencies because our government must represent American values and be accessible to the people it serves. Plain language is one way to support diversity and a government that values access and inclusion. 

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