Debra Allcock Tyler: beware of adopting the language of governments

They talk about 'value added', but the sector should stick to talking about values, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I recently had a housekeeping emergency. I'd been away for work a lot and my house was rather, ahem, untidy. Normally that wouldn't bother me much, but my partner's mother was coming to dinner (I'm sure readers can understand my stress). It doesn't help that I loathe cleaning and ironing. At best, I do it resentfully and, at the very least, I do it really badly.

Luckily my neighbour has a lovely friend called Aga, who offered to help me out. The problem is that I don't speak any Polish and Aga doesn't speak much English. So we communicated using Google Translate, but this app has its limitations. I was trying to explain that I wanted Aga to help with some ironing. The translation came out as "please only do ironing it is not safe". She understandably looked alarmed by the mistranslation, so I tried again. This time the translation said "for me please only do gays".

Our misunderstandings were further compounded when, after a few hours of working together, she tried to translate from Polish to English words to the effect that she hadn't finished all the ironing and she'd be happy to take it home to finish it there. It translated as "please can I take your teeth?" Now, as grateful as I was for Aga's help, I do draw the line at giving her my pearly whites.

The fact that we don't speak the same language resulted in some hilarious moments, but was not in itself inherently serious. However, the language disconnect between the voluntary sector and government has much more dangerous consequences. And there is no Google Translate for that.

The government talks about value added; we talk about values. It talks about investment; we talk about giving. It talks about social return; we talk about helping others. It talks about social capital; we talk about people. You might think this wouldn't matter much, but it matters enormously, because of the simple psychological fact that the language the government uses to talk about the sector can profoundly affect the way we behave.

Talk of "investment" rather than "gifts" can lead to us bending over backwards to pay back the investor in some way rather than focus on what a financial resource can do for our beneficiaries. When the government uses words such as "businesslike", we can end up focusing on how much money we can generate rather than how we can serve others with what resources we have.

When we allow ourselves to be trapped into using language that does not fit our sector, we risk treating our beneficiaries as if they are consumers of a product rather than human beings who deserve help and support. We must, of course, learn the government's language so that we can communicate effectively with it, but it is even more important that we help it to learn our language. As demonstrated by my miscommunications with Aga, when we get the language wrong we risk losing our teeth.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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