Perhaps you have already heard the term “Cultural Competence,” but are you familiar with the organizational concept of “Linguistic Competence?”

The National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC) at Georgetown University describes Linguistic Competence as, “The capacity of an organization and its personnel to communicate effectively, and convey information in a manner that is easily understood by diverse audiences including persons of limited English proficiency, those who have low literacy skills or are not literate, and individuals with disabilities.”

This concept is relevant to all types of organizations, although healthcare providers were the first to address it. As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, business and educational organizations need to rethink their communication styles.

Linguistic Competence doesn’t mean that an organization should hire only bilingual employees. The NCCC offers 14 different recommendations, from providing translated materials to translation language services, but one of the most important steps is to consider the materials your organization uses to communicate with employees and clients in English.

All general organizational communication, particularly print materials, should be presented in formats that are easy to read and understand, if spoken. Vocabulary and grammar should be at a low level, and pictures and symbols should be used to clarify words, whenever possible.

Here is an excellent example of linguistic competence in action. In 2015, the Center for Court Innovation published Improving Courthouse Signage: Procedural Justice Through Design, which describes the very effective process of improving the look, feel and navigability of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

As you can see, it can be surprising how simple changes can improve user perception and experience.

helping court users navigate the courthouse through linguistic competence

Clear signage makes locations easier to locate. Rules communicated up front save time and embarrassment in the courtroom.

politely and clearly present rules

The publication contains more examples and information about the process used to upgrade the facility, as well as making it more attractive, efficient and user-friendly.

Plenty of other government agencies would benefit from a serious review of their use of Linguistic Competence. For example, eligible voters are a perfect representation of America’s diversity. Voters come from all walks of life and have differing levels of education and English literacy skills. Voter instructions must be simple. Yet, many state websites provide instructions that seem to be more concerned with using correct legal terms than with clarifying the process for voters.

The following section of published voter instructions will be used to demonstrate the problem and solution.

voting instructions and assistance

Steps are a terrific idea, but these are weighed down by confusing detail and jargon. None of the jargon – or technical terms – are explained to help the voter understand them. Difficult sentence structure such as, “A judge of election will determine the ballot on which you are qualified to vote…” is stilted and unnecessary. (Hint to writers – read out loud!)  In addition, details about specific contingencies only confuse the matter. After all, this person is still looking for a polling place.

Instead, the instructions could look like this:

Step 1 – Find your voting place (polling place.)

  • Click here to select your county.
  • Or call XXX-XXX-XXXX for assistance.

Step 2 – When you arrive at the polling place to vote.

  • Sign in with the official (an election judge) at the desk.
  • Receive your ballot (voting paper or electronic card) after it is signed by the election judge.
  • General Elections – the ballot is the same for all voters.
  • Primary Elections – ask for the political party ballot you need (Democrat, Republican, etc.).

It is also important to use Linguistic Competency when creating forms. The online search mechanism should refer to “County” rather than “Jurisdiction.”

election authorities

I hope this introduction has been helpful. Please spend more time researching the subject before tackling any of your existing communications materials. You can begin by considering the Linguistic Competence level of the next communication you create.

Reworking the Linguistic Competency of all organizational materials is a daunting task if the first step does not include prioritization. It’s most important to address the general communication or instructional materials available to employees or clients.

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