Once, a Tamil colleague in my Australian workplace wanted personal help. He had a letter written in Sinhala, addressed to his wife. A Government Department in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka had issued it.
The subject matter was about the submission of additional information to the department. This was required to further process his wife’s request for payment of unpaid employment entitlements. As the technical aspects of the issue were beyond my forte, I just helped him to understand the contents of the letter and then, I translated it into English.
It should be noted that my friend did not complain to me on the receipt of a Sinhala letter although he or his wife could not read Sinhala. However, I felt bad by witnessing a Sinhala letter sent to a Tamil employee who could not read Sinhala. Besides, she worked in an area, where the majority of the population spoke and wrote in Tamil.
The alarming fact was that the letter had been signed by a Tamil officer. My personal opinion was that it should have been written in Tamil or both in Tamil and Sinhala official languages of Sri Lanka. Or else, the authorities could, at least, have written in any language with an English translation as the English language in Sri Lanka is the ‘link’ language among all ethnicities.
I leave above personal opinions for the readers to judge which should have been, on fairness and equity grounds. My focus of this article is not about the chosen language Sinhala but how the letter was written.
By the way, I believe that I am a reasonably good Sinhala writer. As a personal note to justify this claim, I could quote many literary awards I won for my Sinhala writings and also the poems and the short stories I published on Sinhala newspapers. The point is that I could understand the contents of the letter easily. However, I was bitterly disappointed about the syntax of the writing, complicated Sinhala phrases, clauses, uncommon words, and legal terms used in the letter and the impersonal, antagonistic tone emphasised by the writer.
The sentence patterns, legal jargon and ambiguous message in the letter made me really annoyed because even a Sinhala person who had limited formal education would have struggled to understand it let alone a Sinhala proficient Tamil person.
So, precisely, my focus here is the style of writing in Sri Lankan public sector.
Falling from grace!
Let me take you to an incident that happened 17 years back, in Australia.
My Engineering Director (Caucasian) instructed me to draft a letter, addressing to a customer, for his signature. So, I thought that it was an ideal opportunity to impress my superior with my borrowed (from British) English language skills and I wrote a ‘perfect’ letter.
After two days, he returned the draft letter with a note that he could not read it beyond the first paragraph and asked me to revise it. With the draft letter, he sent me a small booklet called ‘Style Guide’. This booklet had all basic guiding principles how staff should communicate with internal and external customers in writing. It contained templates for internal letters, memorandums, reports, emails, news publications, presentations, standard forms and even for official business cards.
After referring to the booklet, I myself felt ashamed of my over-confidence in applying my highly-grammatical, classical British English language skills to address an Australian English-speaking customer. This was the day I started focussing on ‘Simplified English’ writing. By the way, I re-wrote the letter thrice to get my boss’s signature. Afterwards, I rarely had my letters or reports returned for major revisions.
Having written communication skills is essential for any public sector employee. Especially the employees who communicate with internal and external customers in writing need to develop this skill.
The aim is to convey the complete and clear message to the intended recipient without any jargon or ambiguity. It is not an opportunity show the writer’s depth in vocabulary or to confuse the customer with irrelevant details and conflicting messages.
Thinking in English and writing in Sinhala
Great Britain gave us, the Ceylonese, the English language over a century ago. At the beginning, a section of the Ceylonese society who learned English used the newly-acquired skill as a crown or an ornament, instead of a tool. This led to the formation of an artificial social strata who could communicate in English with the British governing bodies.
This elite group did not stop there. They took the skill to their own advantage and closely liaised with the British authorities to secure leadership roles to govern the commoners.
These English educated local leaders produced volumes of documents for commoners in English language first as per the need of the British and thereafter, translated the documents into Sinhala and Tamil while maintaining the same traditional Queen’s English character in mother tongue as well.
Essentially, the public officials thought in English and wrote in Sinhala. This trend has continued even after Sri Lanka obtained independence from the British monarchy. This is why still majority of Sri Lankan Government’s communiques to the public are written in impersonal traditional Sinhala and English language. I believe Government Tamil communiques have the same character.
Isn’t that the idea of a public communique is to deliver a clear and easy to understand message to the intended recipient? I wonder why none of us wanted to get rid of this shackle.
Recently, Sri Lanka celebrated International Mother Language Day 2018. The idea was to highlight the importance of one’s mother tongue as a key symbol for various ethnicities. For a nation, the mother tongue is a daily celebratory identity. If the governing bodies of the nation cannot write to the nation preserving the character of the mother tongue, then this is a hollow one-stop celebration.
I myself had the difficulty of publishing my professional writings in Sri Lanka as the expectation was to use complex English, in line with the professional standards. Hence, I am yet to shed the colonial English web completely from my writings to the Sri Lankan audience.
Mark Twain, American author and wit, said: “I never use the word metropolis, because I’m always paid the same amount of money to write city. I never write policeman because I can get the same price for cop. I never write valetudinarian at all, for not even hunger and wretchedness could humble me to the point where I will do a word like that for seven cents; I wouldn’t do it for 15.”
The Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner once described that the author Ernest Hemingway had never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.
Sometimes, the English educated intellectuals frown upon the use of simplified English as a form of poor English language use. I do not profess that I am a good English writer at all, to challenge the local English prodigy. If one writes grammatically wrong, with syntax errors, he or she depicts poor language skills. However, there are many writers who are equipped with commonly used, unambiguous vocabulary and who can write skilfully to deliver concise and clear messages to the readers.
My focus here is all languages – English, Sinhala and Tamil. In the Sri Lankan public sector we are lack of good writers who value the power of simplified language. Public sector authorities must promote the use of simplified grammatically correct Sinhala, Tamil and English for all writing across the board.
The public sector organisations in the developed countries, especially in English speaking countries, have already moved into the domain of ’Simplified English Use’ as the most acceptable writing style. These countries even adopt simplified English for technical writing as well.
We, as Sri Lankans, who borrowed English language from the Britain, still hung on to the classical Queen’s English writing styles. Even the British themselves use simplified English to communicate with public for many decades now.
Use of plain language
“The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity” – Robert Stuberg, author.
The Sri Lankan public sector should use plain Sinhala, Tamil and English language when communicating with all customers. There are certain techniques for writing in plain language.
Use common, everyday words – The writer must think critically about the words that are going to be used. Bureaucratic and jargon words must be avoided.
Write personally – The customer should feel the writer is specifically addressing him/her. So, personal pronouns must be used and the reader must be addressed directly. This holds their attention and makes the writing more interesting.
Imagine how you’d say it – This is the magic touch to the letter. The writer must imagine that he or she is speaking to the client face to face, then the writing would become closer to the everyday language.
Write in active voice – Active voice is the language of accountability. Here the writer tell the readers ‘who’ is doing ‘what’ by putting the ‘doer’ at the front of the sentence. This will help a customer service officer to write simple, reader-friendly sentences. It also helps one to keep the language personal.
Use short sentences – Short sentences give a single message per sentence. It promotes the interest of continual reading of the communique while understanding the message easily.
Avoid officiousness – It is true that an organisation has a lot of rules and regulations that few of customers would understand. When writing to public, it is better to use the opportunity to explain the regulations and requirements openly without using aggressive tone by repeating legal language. Often, the reader does only want to know what is meant by the rules and regulations in simple words.
Addressing different ethnicities – When addressing different ethnicities, the writer must not categorise or stereotype people by merely referring to one aspect of who they are. In Australia, the terms such as South African-born Australians, overseas-born Australians, Arabic-speaking Australians, Australians of Vietnamese descent, people from a non-English speaking background and culturally and linguistically diverse cultures are used to give them dignity.
Addressing people with disabilities – The focus is to be on the people, not their disability. Hence, the term ‘people who are visually impaired’ is preferable to ‘the blind’. The term ‘deaf’ must be replaced with the ‘people with hearing impairment’ and the words schizophrenic and manic-depressive must be replaced with ‘person with a mental illness’.
Avoiding sexist language – The using of the masculine or feminine forms must be avoided when referring to both men and women. Using plural forms would help to achieve this. Depending on the requirements, the writer can gender specific (his or her), gender inclusive (his and her) or gender neutral (chairperson, supervisor). It is always advisable to use gender-neutral words and titles if the writer does not know the sex of the person, instead of guessing.
Referring to the organisation – If the letter is written on a letter head, there is no need to repeat organisations name within the body of the correspondence. Instead, personal pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘our’ can be easily used. It is ok to use the organisations name to avoid repetition however, the readers should know the organisation is not an anonymous bureaucracy but a team of professionals.
It is high time for the Sri Lankan public sector organisations to develop own ‘Language Style Guides’ to guide staff to use simplified and grammatically correct Sinhala, Tamil and English written language when communicating with the internal and external customers.
Once the great Physicist Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer and a Fellow of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. His mission is to share his 30 years of local and overseas experience to make, at least, a minute improvement to Sri Lankan organisations. He is contactable via email@example.com.)