Full transcript of Yukiko Nakayama’s talk: Simple English for Everyone @ TEDxKyotoUniversity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Simple English for Everyone by Yukiko Nakayama @ TEDxKyotoUniversity
Hello, everyone. I came here today to talk about simple English that anyone can use.
I am a non-native speaker of English. I couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t write English, but now I can communicate to you what I am doing and why it is important.
In fact, I can write about difficult things. My job is to describe technologies. I write about LEDs, smartphones, or other complicated structures.
Simple English, meaning speaking or writing clear and plain English, has changed my communication and changed my entire career. My talk today is for all the non-native speakers of English, including Japanese, and those who are natives may also find my talk interesting by watching how non-natives struggle, and how your advanced English or our complicated English can be broken down into simple and clear English.
Let me start from my story. Back in 1993, I was at the university in Kyoto. I was bored, depressed, and I had no bright future. I studied English, but I couldn’t speak English, and life was not what I expected.
After university, I entered a company producing chemicals, and I did some translation from Japanese into English, but I was still bored and depressed. I had no fun at work. I couldn’t write good English, and life was difficult.
In the year 2000, I changed jobs and became a patent translator. I started to write about technical stuff. I started to write about inventions on LED lamps or smart keys for your automobiles or copying machines, digital cameras. Very technical stuff.
In the process of writing all those technical things, I started to realize that I don’t need any advanced or complicated English. What I need is simple and plain, easy English to describe difficult things.
I started to read books on what is called “technical writings,” and I liked their ideas. They say, for example: “Use the active voice. Put statements in positive form. Use definite, concrete language. Omit needless words. Avoid fancy words.” I liked their idea.
So, for example, instead of “The gas does not have any odor” – odor meaning “smell” – I wrote “the gas is odorless,” by using the positive form. “It is interesting to note that there are seven steps that must be completed in order to make a successful presentation.” I wrote: “To make a successful presentation seven steps must be completed.”
This revision actually follows one of my favorite style manuals. They say to omit empty phrases such as “it is interesting to note that.” Interestingly, they think that “it is interesting to note that” is an empty phrase. That interested me.
They say, “Avoid any unnecessary words,” and they say, “Write economically by using single words.”
Many of you here may want to use, for example, “in order to” in your speaking or writing, but then they say that you should use only “to.” I liked their idea.
I’ll give you another example. This is a piece of writing from my student, last week. He wrote: “According to a recent study, it has been shown that stress – people are stressful these days – can be a trigger of Alzheimer’s disease.” Excellent. Advanced and grammatically correct English.
But then I rewrote: “Recent research shows that stress can trigger Alzheimer’s disease.”
In the process of this writing, I started to see a bright light. I studied hard, worked hard, and within a year, I passed a first level technical writing test in Japan. Luckily, I was awarded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, in Japan. I was lucky.
Then things started to change. I became a chief instructor at the Japan Society of Technical Communication, JSTC. I worked as a patent translator on a freelance basis for ten years. I published two books: one on the basics of technical writing and the other on patent translation. Last year I founded a company in Kyoto.
Until the year 2000, I was depressed and confused and even felt hopeless. I had never even dreamed of writing books, and I had no way of speaking in front of people. Simple English changed me.
Simple English motivated me. I never gave up. Simple English changed my entire life. I am here hoping that spreading this idea will help people.
Now, I want to share with you one tip for simple English. Very easy, anyone can use this tip.
If you have your headsets on for simultaneous translation, you can try taking them off, and try finding the beauty or the power of simple English.
So, let’s begin. Use verbs! Verbs meaning “words to express action.” “Smile” or “eat” or “run.” Verbs are powerful, so use dynamic verbs rather than static ones. For example, instead of “I am a teacher of English,” say, “I teach English.”
Instead of “I belong to a soccer team,” say, “I play soccer.”
Instead of “It is difficult for me to speak in front of many people,” say, “I cannot speak in front of many people.”
Instead of “The number of non-natives at TedxKyoto University, or in the entire world, is greater than the number of natives,” you can also say, “Non-natives outnumber natives,” by using only three words.
See: subject, verb, and an object. Somebody does something.
I also use the active voice whenever possible. The active voice meaning that the subject is the doer of an action; the passive voice meaning that the subject is a receiver of an action.
Compare the two sentences here: “In the year 2011, I was sad; Tohoku was hit by the great earthquake,” or “In the year 2011, the great earthquake hit Tohoku.” You can see the active voice is more direct, clearer, and uses fewer words.
In this process of revising, black clouds in my head, in my mind, disappeared altogether, and my life got better. I thought I should tell this idea to anyone who has less confidence in their English.
You know, according to a survey conducted by the British Council, 72% of business people in Japan think they lack confidence in their English. 90% of my students say they lack confidence in their English.
From the year 2006, I go anywhere to teach this simple English to anyone, including business people, translators and engineers, and students at the universities. I like them.
I also teach at Kyoto University as well. I encourage them to write or present their ideas or their technologies in simple English. Amazingly they learn very quickly. Their confident smiles after the course moved me. They said simple English changed their communication.