The importance of language

Read all news

Children’s Convenor Karen Brady discusses why the language we use in The Children’s Tribunal System is important and why we are working hard at using language that cares...

I have been reading and thinking a lot recently about language. One of the people that I follow on social media and whose words have resonated with me is Bryony Shannon (@BryonyShannon). Bryony has written a number of posts about words and the power of language, “Rewriting social care - words that make me go hmmm”.

As Bryony’s posts highlight, language is more than just a collection of words; it is something that connects us to each other, and we often underestimate its impact. It can unite, but it can also divide. It can present barriers to effective communication and, if we don’t take care, it can have the effect of labelling, stigmatising and excluding.

Bryony’s posts ring loud and clear about why language matters and they have made me think about some of the words that are a feature of my professional world. Working in a role that combines both the law and social work, I hear and use a lot of jargon and I recognise many of the words that make Bryony go hmmm.

When we embark on our career journeys, we not only learn the skills and knowledge that we will need to do a good job, but we also learn the language of our trade. We learn new words and phrases that are often alien to the world outside of the workplace. I don’t think I have ever referred to anyone as ‘my learned friend’ anywhere other than in the court room. We pick up this language initially from those who teach us and then from those around us. Over time, it becomes part of our professional identity and we become so accustomed to it that we make assumptions that everyone knows what we are talking about, sometimes losing sight of how some of the words we use might make people feel and act.

Why do we become so connected to this professional language? There are many reasons suggested in the information that I have been exploring; it connects us to a shared purpose, and it provides a recognised shorthand that fellow professionals understand. For many of us, it might just be that we are more at ease with what we know and have been taught or haven’t really given it too much thought. However, some of the suggested reasons sit a little less comfortably. We may use it as a shield to protect us from the emotional impact of our work or when we find it difficult to speak candidly, and we may use it to create a sense of being different or to confuse or exclude.

The words we choose to describe what we do and how we do it matter. They matter because what we say and write can affect how we, and those around us, think and act. Words have the power to create the narrative of a person’s life and the role that we have played in it. And there is plenty of evidence out there to confirm this. The Adolescent and Children’s Trust's (@TACTcare) ‘Language that Cares’ report, which was created and written by children and young people, challenges us to stop hiding behind the jargon and stop talking to people in language that describes the events in their lives in an impersonal and dehumanising way. The Scottish Care Review (@ThePromiseScot), informed by over 5,500 people with experience of the care system, concluded that the language of family support must reflect normal family discourse and not be hidden behind professional terms.

Reading more about why language matters, I have discovered that there are lots of people who are equally passionate about this, with many writing about it and, more importantly, following words with action. As well as walking the walk, they are talking the talk. For example, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (@ChildReporter) has recently launched a new project looking at how they can change the language used in the Children’s Hearing System. The Family Law Language Project (@TheFLLProject) is encouraging those involved in the legal process to move away from terms that promote conflict and adopt a simpler more accessible terminology that puts the welfare of children and their families first. Each and Every Child (@eacheverychild) has developed an evidence-based training toolkit to support organisations to reframe their communications.

Child and family care and justice systems are, by their nature, complex; they exist to deal with the complex and diverse nature of our relationships and the challenges that we might face. They can be difficult places to navigate, especially when we are at our most vulnerable or frightened, and even harder if you don’t speak the language or fully understand the words used. In this context, language really does matter. If you are in any doubt, read the report of the Family Solutions Group in England. It shines a light on the impact of some of our more traditional legal language and calls for a fresh look at the way family law is framed to shift mindsets away from the ‘justice’ language of adversity, and battles towards safety, wellbeing and child welfare.

Reflecting on what I have discovered, learning a new language and reframing our messaging is not just about finding or learning new words; it is about thinking differently. It means thinking beyond the words we use to the impact they may have on the persons who will hear or read them. If you have tried to learn another language as an adult, you will recognise that this requires effort. Training your brain to think differently and making and sustaining change takes time, determination and persistence. It will also take courage and confidence to step away from long established custom and culture and encourage other to do the same.

We may have a been given a very small head start in the Bailiwick as those who developed our Children Law in 2008 clearly had language in mind. Some of the terms that are now considered to be stigmatising do not feature. Also, our Children’s Tribunal System is designed to be less formal than a court with decisions made by people who are not versed in the professional language of law or social work.  

All of this however is only a very small start. We need to do much more to ensure that the language of our system is clear, accessible and sensitive and reflects the welfare principles of partnership, inclusion, equality and co-operation that are embedded in the 2008 law. If we are to encourage and support each other to act in this way then we need to act, speak and write in this way. 

So, what are we going to do within the Children’s Tribunal System? 

Firstly, we will try hard not to use jargon and acronyms where they might not be understood by everyone. Although it takes longer to say and write “the Child, Youth and Community Tribunal” instead of the acronym “CYCT”, this more clearly conveys what the Tribunal is about – children and young people and bringing together our community to support families to care for their children.

We will continue to work at reframing our communications to ensure positive messages that create a narrative of hope, care and optimism and we will work at avoiding using professional and legal language wherever possible. The work of the Children’s Tribunal System is often complex, however that doesn’t mean the language used has to be.

Where we have to use legal terms, we will provide a clear and simple explanation of what those words or phrases mean and we will continue to listen, learn and make changes in response to what we hear.

True inclusion and partnership relies on words that everyone understands. I recognise that we will not always get it right but let’s start the conversation on what else we can do to make things simpler and clearer and let us know if there are words and phrases we use that you think we should put in the recycle bin.