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Cedric Stephens Communicating insurance so that all can understand

Marlon James is a critically acclaimed Jamaican author. The blurb to his 688-page award-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, says that Mr James “immerses his readers in the history and culture of Jamaica”.

I stopped reading his book at the halfway mark a few years ago even though it referred to familiar places. I found the author’s use of Jamaican Patois or creole language difficult to understand. I am still amazed that critics in the United States and the United Kingdom who read the 2004 novel, understood what The Economist called a “strange and wonderful” book and The Wall Street Journal described as a “tour de force”.

My views about Mr James’ use of local idiom have changed. They have now reached the point where I am comfortable posing questions like: Is it wise for insurance companies, intermediaries, and other financial institutions to ignore the use of the Jamaican language in their communication with customers and prospective clients? Or: Would the use of the Jamaican language in financial communication hinder financial inclusion? That phrase – financial inclusion – according to the World Bank, means that individuals and businesses will have access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs.

Financial literacy is part of financial inclusion. It has been on the public agenda for over two decades.

In August 2010, for example, the then central bank Governor Bryan Wynter was quoted as saying: “Through its website, its money museum, its many publications, media advertisements, press briefings, public appearances and other channels, the bank provides an enormous volume of information and explanations relating to the economy and virtually every aspect of its operations. We will continue to improve our accessibility in this regard. But receiving information is different from understanding what it is, whether it is important and how it may be relevant to your circumstances. Achieving this is, in part, the purpose of improving financial literacy.”

Former Governor Wynter’s ideas did not lead him to question whether the language in which the messages were being communicated was appropriate.


None of the websites of the insurance companies and intermediaries that I visited to get information to write this piece offered evidence indicating that some persons speak Jamaican creole but do not comprehend standard English. On the other hand, the Planning Institute of Jamaica and the Statistical Institute of Jamaica have started to use pictographs – symbols and pictures – to promote understanding of the information they disseminate.

Three weeks ago, Sunday Gleaner columnist Oran Hall, who specialises in personal finance, wrote that: “More efforts are being made to raise the level of financial literacy in the Jamaican population to foster better financial behaviour. This is timely because financial literacy is increasingly becoming a necessary core skill for consumers as the financial landscape becomes more complex.”

His views and those of this writer, accidentally or otherwise, do not – to paraphrase Joseph T. Farquharson, coordinator of the Language Unit of The University of the West Indies, Mona campus – “give credence to” the existence of Jamaican Patois.

Many communicators assume that all Jamaicans speak, read, and understand standard English – which Microsoft Word calls English (Jamaica). The island’s daily newspapers do not follow these examples.

Insurance and insurance policies (or contracts) are difficult for the average person to understand. Christopher Elliott, writing for the American magazine Forbes, in a piece titled, ‘Why Insurance Policies Are Impossible to Read’ says that: “Insurance policies aren’t just difficult to read, sometimes they’re downright impossible to understand.” The process is even more challenging when the information that is being communicated is expressed in a foreign language without a translation utility that is now a standard feature of most internet browsers.


The regulator of the local non-bank financial services industry (which includes insurance), the Financial Services Commission, recognises the vital role that communication plays in insurance transactions. Eleven paragraphs of its market conduct rules deal with the disclosure of information, eight are about advertising, and the sections on complaints handling have communication components that focus on the management of claims. Significantly, these rules do not consider the fact that a segment of the population may be more prone to misunderstanding important parts of insurance transactions, or that unscrupulous actors can easily mislead persons. The rules are also notable for the absence of readability standards for written communication.

According to Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris, research has suggested that many of the problems with standard English have come from not recognising that the first language (of Jamaica) is Patois.

Takaful is a type of insurance that is practised in Islamic countries. It is a substitute for traditional insurance. Islamic culture and religious law bar the charging of interest and gambling. Has the local insurance industry reached a stage of maturity where the use of the native tongue and other cultural traditions are embedded in daily transactions, to make it more inclusive, and to increase market penetration?

? Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: or

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