Monday, August 1, 2016

Your website and non-English speaking audiences

The Internet means your website is visible to everyone – not just readers in your own country, but in places you never heard of. While they may not have been part of your original target, it always helps to have a good reputation, especially as word-of-mouth publicity is long-lasting.

Here are a few things to remember when writing to include non-English speaking (NES) audiences.

NES is non-mainstream

In the USA, Canada, UK or Australia, NES audiences include anyone who is not mainstream, or not part of the dominant cultural group. They may be from different ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds, and may be low-literate or illiterate. They may be inexperienced or unfamiliar with technology. Yet they are part of our society, and their children and grandchildren will grow up as part of two or more worlds.

As consumers, NES audiences still need to purchase basics – food, clothing, housing, medical care, and transportation. They also need Internet service and entertainment, and their social needs mean they are looking to become part of the greater community around them.

For you and your website, this means making your content inclusive – friendly to everyone, not only highly-educated people who were born with the same citizenship as you.

Here are a few "extreme" examples of non-inclusive language:
  • "That is small potatoes." 
  • "Just give me an eensy-weensy piece of pie." 
  • "The store had slim pickings." 
  • "I wouldn't exactly say that it is not never going to be minuscule." 
  •  " They live out in Woop Woop."
All of these expressions mean "small" – a small amount of money, a small piece of pie, a small number of items to choose from, a very small amount, and a very small town far away. But to someone who is still learning English, understanding these expressions is a BIG problem.

In your writing, avoid slang and idioms, and use vocabulary that can be understood by high school or middle school students. Avoid complex grammar such as double-negatives, or the Past Perfect Progressive tense.

Remember the low-literate and illiterate

You might be thinking, "What is an illiterate person doing on my website if they can't read!" People who are low-literate or illiterate in your language know that they need to learn how to read. If your website has audio and video files, they can hear the information and improve their English skills.

Audio and video files can also help everyone in your audience. Instead of writing a hundred words about – say – how to insert a new battery into a TV remote, it is easier to have a video that they can watch. A video doesn't need to be made expensively – just a mobile phone camera can make a video good enough for YouTube or your website.

Pay for a real translator

If you are targeting a language group, pay for a good translator, preferably a native speaker of that language. Do not rely solely on machine translation, such as Google Translate, or any website that promises to translate your paragraph with just a click.

If a document is critical to understand, such as a legal form, use "back-translation". That means using two translators – you send your English information to a Hazaragi translator, and then send the translator's work to a second translator to translate it back into English. What you end up with should convey your meaning in more or less the same way as what you started with. And yes, Hazaragi is a real language, spoken by the Hazara people in Afghanistan.

Use a reading level test

Two of the more popular readability tests are the Flesch reading-ease test and Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Formula. Both are built in to many word processing programs such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.

In a Microsoft Word document, uses the following steps to perform the Flesch-Kincaid tests:
  1. Highlight the text.
  2. Click on the Office Button at the upper-left corner of the Word window, and then select Word Options.
  3. Select Proofing, then check the boxes for “Check grammar with spelling“ and for “Show readability statistics.“ Click OK.
  4. Now choose Review => Spelling & Grammar. Word will check the spelling and grammar, then display a small box with Flesch-Kincaid results.
The Flesch reading-ease test places syllable length as a weighting factor, on the assumption that longer words are more complex. A score of 90 to 100 indicates the text is easily understood by an average eleven-year-old student. Text with a score of zero to 30 is best understood by a university graduate.

The Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Formula places sentence length as a weighting factor.

As an example, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a famous speech "I Have a Dream". He gave it on 28 August 1963, during the height of the U.S. civil rights movement.

His entire speech scored Reading Ease 65.1 and Grade Level 8.8 – understandable to someone with just eight years of education, such as a 14-year-old.

Let's analyse the most difficult sentence in his speech:


I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
  • Sentence length: 57 words
  • Reading Ease score: 27.2 (college graduate level)
  • Grade Level: 23.6 (23 years of education)


Alabama has vicious racists. Its governor's lips drip with the words of "interposition" and "nullification." I have a dream that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

  • Sentence length: 16.3 words average
  • Reading Ease score: 65.9 (14-year-old level)
  • Grade Level: 8.1 (8 years of education)

A problem with long sentences is that the audience must remember everything – they cannot refer to written text. Also, the speaker keeps going even if a listener doesn't understand a few words. This is why it is important to keep your speech simple.

Remember that if your English text is easy to understand, then it makes the readers and translators’ job easier.

Start writing with your NES audiences in mind too.

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