by Jen O Neill
We hear about the growing problem of functional illiteracy. However, for many of us in technical communication, it may not be an issue that we consider when we write for our target audiences. Yet if our work is read by users whose native language is not English, then we well need to consider the needs those readers who have poor English.
What’s it like to be an adult who can’t understand the text in front of them? How much more complicated does it become when you can’t speak the local language but must still find and communicate information?
I visited Moscow and St Petersburg for the first time in October, 2012. I can’t remember why, but I bought a different travel guide for each city. I got the Lonely Planet guide for Moscow (2012 edition) and the DK Eyewitness Travel guide for St Petersburg (2010 edition). Most of my time in Russia was spent in St Petersburg.
Two very different cities when it comes to communication
Over 2.5 million foreigners visit St Petersburg and 4 million visit Moscow annually. St Petersburg is more sympathetic towards its foreign visitors than Moscow. Unlike Moscow where everything is written in Cyrillic only, downtown St Petersburg has “bi-lingual” signage. The signage, such as street and metro names, includes both the Cyrillic script and its transliteration in Roman script.
Information looks very different in Cyrillic, even when referring to familiar things like the MacDonald’s fast food restaurant. Names that are familiar at home become incomprehensible. Cyrillic only shares a few common letters with the Latin script that we use in Western European languages.
I don’t know Russian. I didn’t have time before to learn the Cyrillic script before I left on holiday. So this meant that I was effectively functionally illiterate during my stay in Russia. I also would be unable to talk with people unless they understood my (foreign) language.
But everyone speaks English, right, or at least the younger generation does?
Few Russians speak English. Nearly everyone I stopped to ask for help in both Moscow and St Petersburg had little or no English regardless of their age. This meant that I was dependent on my guide books for much of the information that I needed.
To help their readers, both travel guides had a section with many commonly used words and phrases, such as “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me” and “Hello”. Both show how to pronounce the words and phrases. I found that the DK Eyewitness Travel guide had a more extensive list of words and phrases. However, they were written in smaller type than those in the Lonely Planet guide.
As a functional illiterate who couldn’t speak Russian, I wasn’t keen on trying out sentences but appreciated having the simple everyday words to use. To stop a stranger in the street and try to pronounce a couple of phonetic phrases from a guide book before the person walks away can be challenging, “Gdye Khram Spasa-na-Krovi ? pa·ka·zhih·tye mnye pa·zhal·sta (na kar·tye)” [Where is Church on Spilled Blood? Can you show me (on the map)?]
What was I supposed to do when the answer comes back in Russian, which I don’t understand?
I found it easier to keep to the simple “Please/Thank you” Russian words and point at the Cyrillic text or photo in the guide book or metro map and gesture, “Where is?” or “Am I here?”
This meant that I needed a guide book that let me “speak” with my finger.
I would need to be able to point at some specific information in the guide. The locals would need to be able to quickly understand my problem, although I’d have an answer in a language I wouldn’t understand. So I needed a communication system that was visual.
Let your fingers do the talking
The two travel guides are designed differently. DK Eyewitness Travel has a very visual layout with colour-coded chapters on each city area to visit and many photographs. Lonely Planet has minimal colour (mainly black text with blue headings) and some colour photographs. Both have a local map in each chapter on an area being described as well as a detailed main street maps at the back of the guide. As expected, both also have chapters with practical information on such subjects as transport, language, top tourist itineraries, restaurants and entertainment.
The DK Eyewitness Travel guide was much more encouraging for “talking with your finger”. Its visual layout made it much easier to point at specific information when showing a page to someone. The Lonely Planet layout was not designed to have its information shown to someone.
Here’s an example of an entry in the Lonely Planet guide for Moscow (click to enlarge):
Here’s an example of an entry in the DK Eyewitness Travel guide for St Petersburg (click to enlarge):
Examples of local area maps in the two travel guides (click to enlarge):
The DK Eyewitness Travel method of clearly categorising information on a site to visit became particularly important once I travelled outside of the city centre to the suburbs—when the signage is written in Cyrillic only. But it was still easy to point at the photo or the Cyrillic name of the place I wanted to visit and then point at, say, the bus number listed to “ask” people where on the street the bus stop is located for this destination. Everybody quickly understood what I needed to know and replied in gestures too.
I still haven’t seen the Lonely Planet’s guide for St Petersburg but if the information design of Moscow guide is anything to go by, I can’t image having this “finger dialogue” with strangers using their guide.
It really helped having a picture of the site I wanted to visit when asking for directions by gesture. During my stay I must have stopped dozens of people and ask them for information simply by pointing at items in my travel guide and making gestures such as “Where is?” I was often amazed (and relieved) that although I had no common spoken language with the Russians, we somehow had a common language of gestures, and everybody was always helpful.
Numbers. The universal language
I may not have been able to speak Russian but besides having the travel guide to help me, I had another tool that proved invaluable when I needed to converse with locals—the mobile phone.
I was on a limited budget so ate in lower priced canteens and buffet-style restaurants. When I’d reach the cash desk to pay, the cashiers would realise that I didn’t understand them and they would type the price on their mobile phones and show me the number. The phone was also great when haggling in markets. The vendor and I would simply enter the price on our phones that we were each expecting to pay or charge and show each other the number. No speaking; just shaking or nodding of heads and a phone to display the price. Simple yet effective.
A travel guide on Moscow without a metro map and no station names written in Cyrillic?
The easiest way to get around Moscow is by metro. Moscow has a large metro system with over 180 stations, many of which are architecturally beautiful. However, the metro system only shows the station names in Cyrillic characters.
There are metro maps shown on walls throughout the stations. Unlike Paris, for example, Moscow doesn’t hand out free printed metro maps to users to help them around a complex system. Although you can get a map of the Moscow metro on the web (in Flash) that shows the station names in both Cyrillic and Roman characters, the Roman-character names are in grey and are difficult, if not impossible, to read. Did the Lonely Planet travel guide consider this issue?
Frustratingly the Lonely Planet guide doesn’t include a metro map. To make matters worse, it only gives the Roman-character names of metro stations in its texts. So this can make using the metro system difficult if you don’t know the Cyrillic alphabet.
Up to nine million people use the system daily. So it’s often –very– crowded, which can make it difficult to read a station name on platform walls when you’re in a metro carriage. If you only have the Roman character name to use from your guide book, then it becomes more difficult to quickly figure out where you are on a metro line. You need a map if only to be able to count the number of stations you must travel before getting off or changing lines.
The DK Eyewitness Travel guide of St Petersburg includes a metro map. This city’s metro system is smaller than that of Moscow’s with only 65 stations. All stations have bi-lingual signage (Cyrillic/Roman scripts). Being a smaller system it’s easier to include a metro map in the guide. Although Lonely Planet includes a separate fold-out map of Moscow streets, there’s none for the metro included. This is an extraordinary oversight for such a fundamental tool to help tourists.
The Moscow metro service could also improve their map on their web site to make it more readable.
The problem with signage
As a Western European I’m used to seeing text-free icons in signage to tell me where things are located in buildings or on the street such as toilets, exits, left luggage, or taxis for example. However, Russia uses few, if any, text-free icons in its signage to communicate information. Moscow in particular is very text centric. If you can’t read Cyrillic script then the city isn’t going to help you. This means that you can’t read the signage in a railway station, for example, if you don’t know the language.
Unfortunately the list of words and phrases provided in both guides doesn’t consider this signage issue. They don’t include many common standard signage terms such as “Left luggage” or the words used in a train arrival/departure timetable such as “Platform”.
I planned to see St. Basil’s cathedral in the Red Square but first had go to the train station to leave my suitcase where I was to catch the night train to St. Petersburg later that day. I knew you could leave your suitcase at the station but I didn’t know the Russian term for “Left Luggage”. I couldn’t read the signage. Neither guide book listed the term and no one I asked in the station spoke English. They understood the word “Baggage” but I couldn’t understand their answers. I never found the Left Luggage section in the large railway station. I can’t believe that I went all the way to Moscow only to stand outside the cathedral because I didn’t know the word for “Left Luggage”. I couldn’t enter the cathedral with a suitcase. Both travel guides gave lots of terms for reading menus (which I didn’t need as I went to lower cost places where I could point at the food on offer) but little on realities of using buildings such as railway stations.
In 2014 Russia hosts the winter Olympics in Sochi in the Caucasus mountain. There will be a significant increase in the number of foreigners passing through Moscow on their way to the games. Most will be functionally illiterate in Russian like me. Will Moscow improve its signage to make it easier for us “illiterates” to get about in the city? I didn’t see much evidence during my stay. Will travel guides start to consider signage issues?
Why still use a paper travel guide?
The printed map of the Moscow metro that I had downloaded was poor quality and difficult to read. I have a smart phone so why didn’t I just download some apps to my phone to help me get around the metro and streets of the cities? There are some excellent ones available, even for free.
Roaming charges. Unless you’re not bothered about going broke with roaming charges or you’re using a company phone (so you’re not picking up the tab), you can quickly run up a significant bill from roaming charges when travelling overseas. As I wanted to regularly phone a friend in Siberia during my stay in Russia and I was on a limited budget, I bought a Russian pay-as-you-go SIM card at a railway station to control my phone costs. So I had no access to potentially helpful apps or such tools as Google Maps.
Paper maps and guides aren’t going to disappear any day soon. Paper doesn’t need an internet connection and is available 24/7 with no running charges.
Which guide book did I prefer? Lonely Planet or DK Eyewitness Travel?
I was in Russia for less than a week so had lots to see in a short time. I couldn’t read or speak the language and was travelling by myself on a limited budget. I wanted to explore.
Although I haven’t compared the two travel guides for the same cities, their respective designs are the same for all the places they cover. Lonely Planet probably contained information on more sites to see that DK Eyewitness Travel guide but the layout was cramped. It was often almost identical looking pages of dense type with blue headings. The Lonely Planet world is largely monotone and text orientated.
As a functionally illiterate tourist, I really appreciated having information that was communicated visually.
DK Eyewitness Travel won hands down with all its pictures and easy to use colour-coded chapters. I could quickly find my way around the guide. Its maps were much easier to read than those of Lonely Planet. It got me out there, actively exploring, interacting with the locals. Even if we didn’t share a common language, I was able to “dialogue” with them when I needed help.
But it isn’t just the content that matters. The book design does too. The DK Eyewitness Travel guide has a binding that let the pages stay open when you placed the guide on a table (so you could continue to read it while eating, for example). Lonely Planet slams shut; it always has to be held open or placed open facing down on a surface.
The binding of the DK Eyewitness Travel guide lets you open it back on itself without damaging the spine. Very useful as I usually had it stuffed in my bag, folded open on the page showing the metro map for quick access. DK also has useful robust flaps on the front and back covers to be used as bookmarks so you could quickly locate sections important for that day’s exploration. Could just be my eyesight but I found that there was a better contrast between the black text and white page in the DK Eyewitness Travel than the Lonely Planet. I wasn’t always reading in perfect lighting.
The DK Eyewitness Travel guide has been designed to encourage use and interaction, not just passive reading.
What should you look for in a tourist guide when you can’t read or speak the local language?
- It should be visual.
Lots of pictures and maps to show you what’s where and what it looks like.
- The “wayfinding” information should be visually separated from the description information.
Information such as place names, metro stations, bus numbers, should be easily distinguishable on the page so easy to point at. It shouldn’t be hidden in a large block of text.
- It should be easy and quick to find information on the page.
- It should have clear, easy to read maps that are accurate and which can be read inside and outside a building (that is, under different lighting situations).
- It shows the names of places written in the local script as well Roman script.
It should also include how to pronounce the name.
- It should include a comprehensive list of commonly used words and phrased (and how to pronounce them). It should also include translations of common phrases found on signage.
- It should include a metro map (when there is a metro).
Would I visit Russia again? You bet! I found everyone (except perhaps the ladies in the metro station ticket desks) friendly and helpful. I know which travel guide I’ll be bringing with me.