Linguistic Insights: German government press releases on Corona issues are difficult to understand

In a study of German press releases on Corona issues, communication scientists from the University of Hohenheim revealed that the language used is difficult to understand. The study examined 1362 press releases from the German government and federal ministries from March 2020 to January 2021. All of the examined texts contained the words coronacovid-19pandemic, and crisis. All of them were related to the corona crisis. The hard-to-understand nature of the texts was mainly caused by the following linguistic features: foreign and technical words (which were not explained), word compounds, long and complicated sentences.

To be honest, I was not very surprised by these results. For years I have been dealing with the comprehensibility of texts and the so-called plain language, both in my work as a linguistic consultant and in my academic linguistic research. In my doctoral thesis I examined texts of German and Swedish authorities from the years between 1950 and 2000. The results of my research can be summarized in one sentence: there has not been much linguistic change in the administrative texts of both countries in terms of comprehensibility. And this despite the fact that there have been efforts in both countries to reform the administrative language, especially in Sweden. For several decades now, both countries have been propagating the importance of comprehensibility as a quality criterion for official texts. Thus, the fact that implementation often fails was not new to me. I would even go as far as to call the hard-to-understand nature of the German press releases a missed opportunity. If you consider what plain language can achieve, this evaluation becomes quite clear understandable:

– Plain language creates acceptance – because readers understand what the situation is and what they have to do.

– Plain language creates trust – because readers don’t fear that important information will be withheld from them by unclear and complex language.

– Plain language saves time and money – because no time or money needs to be spent answering clarifying queries or correcting errors.

Wouldn’t it be important for the press releases of the German federal government and federal ministries on Corona issues to solicit acceptance and trust? After all, when it comes to fighting the pandemic, it is crucial that all citizens participate, no matter if it is about implementing measures in a lockdown or organizing a vaccination strategy. Doesn’t it make perfect sense to save time (and money, too) when communicating about these issues? Against the background of the exponential growth of the infection rate, it was (and still is) all the more urgent not to forget the time factor in communication. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and there is still an urgent need for action – also from a linguistic perspective, as the Hohenheim study revealed. Do you have questions about plain language? Would you like to create acceptance and trust in your product with your communication? Contact me, my team and I will be happy to show you how you can make your communication more understandable. 

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