Hangul - Korean alphabet

I’ve been living in South Korea for exactly two years.

While I’ve learnt a lot another year on, this time I’m going to focus on one thing that stands out for me: my illiteracy.

My Korean hasn’t improved all that much.

I describe myself as an advanced beginner – I call it ‘Taxi Driver 101’ where I can easily communicate with taxi drivers and order food at restaurants and ask questions at the supermarket, that sort of thing.

My listening skills have improved through osmosis. Listening to my son and husband chatter away in Korea has helped.

My reading skills are better because I see and read Hangul (the Korean alphabet) everywhere, every day.

But speaking? I’m still stuck with most of the same vocab and expressions I had back in the early 2000s.

And writing? My spelling is atrociously appalling. Embarrassingly so. There are some subtle sound differences in Korean that my English ears refuse to pick up and my spelling reflects this.

My experience of illiteracy

I sail through most days in my privileged English bubble without any language struggles. We speak mostly English at home and when I hear chatter that I don’t understand, I ask The Monsta or TJ to translate. Easy peasy.

But when it comes to filling in the little medicine form in The Monsta’s kindy log book and TJ’s away on business, I have no idea what goes where. All the terms are unfamiliar. I can’t spell very well. My handwriting looks like a kindy kid’s efforts. I try and copy past entries, but my husband’s handwriting is so scrawly it’s hard to make out the letters. I do my best.

And when my husband is away and kindy sends home the weekly newsletter and forms, I take photos and send them to him to translate the important parts for me. I can usually figure out which days they’re going on an excursion and what days I need to make sure he’s dressed in his uniform, but I can’t work out where they’re going. Or I know it’s a birthday party for three kids on Friday, but I don’t know if they’re boys or girls.

When it comes to dealing with bureaucracy and things like phone companies and banks, my husband takes care of all that. But occasionally I’ll have to speak to a Korean banking person on the phone and give my assent in the right places — to what, I have no idea — and hope that it’s all sorted.

This is what it must be like for hundreds of thousands of people living in Australia, especially those who come from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. And First Australians for whom English is their second, third or fourth language.

Plain English advocacy

Because I work mostly on government projects, a plain English user experience is at the core of the content work I do. I’m a plain English advocate.

Spending two years being illiterate in Korea has given me a deeper level of empathy for people struggling to find the information they need, provide the information they must, and fill in all the awful, fiddly, undersized forms.

When I wrote visa-related content last year for the Department of Home Affairs, I had a user in my mind – a guy who lived in a rural area of Indonesia and had some grasp of English, but not enough to understand the nuances of bureaucrat-speak.

But in Australia, the reality is that it’s not just migrants who don’t have adequate English language literacy. A staggering 46 per cent of all Australians don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills they need to successfully participate in modern Australian life. This is not some figure I’ve whipped up out of thin air. The Australian Bureau of Statistics backs me up.

When you advocate for plain English in your content and all communications, you make it easier for everyone to successfully do what they need to do or learn what they need to know.

How being illiterate is making me a better writer

Illiteracy is making me a better writer

The empathy I feel for people who struggle with everyday literacy is making me a better writer.

When you write in plain English, everyone benefits.

Even super-duper smart folk prefer the plain English version of content over bureaucratic and jargon-filled waffle.

Plain English is not about ‘dumbing down’ content or being condescending. No.

Plain English writing is about writing content that is:

  • clear
  • succinct
  • well-structured and with meaningful heading
  • free from jargon and bureaucratic language.

More plain English tips

The next time you’re creating content for a broad audience, do almost half the population a favour and put your plain English hat on. The other half will thank you, too.


Edit: I built a plain English dictionary to help find simpler alternatives to complex and less used words.

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