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Simple English Wikipedia

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In this post, let’s not debate the validity of Wikipedia as a useful tool (though I will pause to recommend my online friend’s new book, How Wikipedia Works). What I want to talk about is the Simple English version of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is available in many languages. Sometimes, if I need to explain a complex subject to someone quickly, I look up the topic in Wikipedia and then check the sidebar on the left to see if their language is listed. If so, I click on that, eyeball the article to see if it looks like it’s probably okay, and then pass it on. It’s very convenient for times when a direct translation doesn’t suffice–if the article exists in the language you need. Logically enough, many topics that are specific to English-speaking areas (such a town in Scotland or a landmark in California) have not been translated into other languages.

An option that shows up on some pages is the “language” of Simple English. Simple English pages are supposed to be written in a direct, straightforward way, without complex grammar; a limited vocabulary should be used. This is a terrific idea in theory. Those US-specific topics and others can be presented here, or a user can practice reading English by reading an article in her native language and then in Simple English. Ideally, it could be the richest free source of reading for beginning and lower-intermediate English learners in the world.

In practice, though, there are not a lot of good Simple English articles. Some are just a sentence or two. Others have been written by users who clearly didn’t read the guidelines for Simple English, and are just doing their own versions of “toning it down.” This is understandable–it’s hard to realize how and how much to simplify your language when you first start working with beginners. I know I’m still learning how to write for beginners, especially since I tend toward really long, overly complex sentences. Writing with a restricted vocabulary is also extremely difficult, particularly if you still want your topic to remain interesting (as anyone who’s tried to write a leveled reader knows!).

My sense from reading discussion pages at Simple English Wikipedia is that most editors mean well but do not have teaching or linguistics backgrounds, as evidenced by the user who claimed that the English place name “Rochester” is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled and thus needs no IPA pronunciation guide. Never mind how many ways the letter combination “ro” can be pronounced in English, for starters … Many editors are not personally familiar with the needs of English learners, I suspect, or have not had experience with non-European learners (though SE Wikipedia does have many non-native speakers of English serving as editors, which is excellent). At any rate, Simple English Wikipedia could use your attention.

One of my projects for next year will be adding new Simple English articles and trying to improve existing ones. I hope other TESOL professionals who have experience in writing beginner-friendly English will join me. Many of you have a lot more experience doing this than I do, and you could make wonderful contributions here. This is a great way to help aspiring English learners, almost like volunteer work for those of us who are short on time or money. If you want to get started right now, check out How to Write Simple English articles. See you there!

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