Language on the web: What international websites have to consider

I have read a lot of articles and even attended conferences on how to write for the web, like last weeks webinar on Writing Vibrant, Compelling Copy by Ginny Redish. All of them are great, I have learned a lot and I would summarize their highlights in the following checklist:

  • Don’t disregard grammar
  • Speak like a person
  • Talk about information relevant to your user
  • Speak as if you were involved in a conversation with your user
  • Write in brief, to-the-point statements, preferably in the form of bullet lists
  • Speak using words that are understood by your user
  • Use clear call-to-action verbs
  • Review your copy

We can talk for hours about each of those statements. Nevertheless, we always have one language in mind when we do so. Not only one language, but on dialect, too

What do I mean with dialect?

When I say dialect I mean a variant of a language spoken in a certain region or by a certain group of people. This means that if you’re speaking english, you’re not always speaking the right type of english. The most common example would be to compare british english with american english. The same words are not always used in the same context or with the same frequency.

I recently had to work in a project that involved developing an e-commerce website that could work for the whole latinamerican branch of a big sales company. The first obvious problem was, of course, that not all countries in latinamerica speak spanish. We needed to consider portuguese.

But aside that obvious language difference, there was something else to consider: The different types of spanish that people speak all over latinamerica.

So why not use the same type of spanish? Don’t they understand it?

They do understand it. Nevertheless, there are some countries that will not trust a website that isn’t using their type of spanish. They’ll consider it a mexican company and will instead search for a regional one, not bothering to check if there are stores available in their country.

And of course, some of them will not understand it. There are specific words or phrases that mean something in Mexico but are understood completely different in, for example, Colombia or Venezuela.

One of the most relevant words I can mention is ‘Cancel’. In Mexico it means to ‘Stop’, ‘Don’t buy’, or whatever other related meaning you want to give it. I some latinamerican countries, however, it means ‘Pay’ or ‘Close the deal’. So if you have a button that says ‘Pay’ and next to it you have a button that says ‘Cancel’, people are going to be very confused.

What can I do about it then?

Research. It’s the only way to get things straight. Search all of the information about the countries you’re going to be developing for, and get to know the main information about their language variations.

Get external help. Hire a person from the country that knows how to translate your copy to that specific dialect’s understanding.

Test a lot more than you’re used to. You have to, of course, test your website and your content in more than one country. Or at least with some people from the country you need to adequate to.

Review your copy. This might be obvious, but it is still not out of context to mention. You have to review everything you write, make sure it’s using the right vocabulary in the right context, show it to others and ask for their opinion, and then review it again. Only then will you be able to assure the quality of the content you are generating.

Article first published as Language on the Web: What International Websites Have to Consider on Technorati.