Design & UX
By Georgina Laidlaw

The Copy Conundrum Redux: Localized English

By Georgina Laidlaw

If you read last week’s post on internationalizing web copy, and you’re only targeting English-speaking audiences, you might be heaving a sigh of relief.

It’s lucky you don’t have to worry about this cultural stuff. Phew!

Well … not so fast. English might be the official language of 88 states, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t regional variations that you need to cater to if you’re targeting anyone beyond your own local borders.

We don’t all speak American

There’s a common, long-held belief that if you’re using English online, American English will do. Everywhere. America was where the Internet was born, right? Right. So we all accept US English, even if we don’t use it ourselves.

This is a pretty outdated way of thinking. If you’re taking this approach to your efforts at web-based world domination, you’re probably not going to get as far as will one of your competitors who’s more sensitive to regional variation.

Let’s look at just one example of localization for a particular English-speaking market.

Look who’s talking

You can watch the 99designs How it Works video from the home page of any localized version of the site. The original, recorded with an American accent a few years ago, always worked well to convert users … yet 99designs decided to change it.

Why? Well, here in English-speaking Australia, where the company began, people tend to find its chirpy, upbeat US accent a little much. We’re lackadaisical Aussies, after all.

So when 99designs redeveloped the website, and rolled it out in Australia and the UK, they rerecorded the voiceover to suit those local markets. If you’re in the US, you get the US version. But if you’re in Australia or the UK, you get the accent-localized version.

Listen to the US version and the UK version to compare them. It’s amazing what a difference an accent can make.

What did you say?

Okay, so maybe you don’t have a video on your site. You may still have a few cultural hurdles to face to be truly embraced by your non-US English-speaking audience, though.

Let’s say you’re targeting Australia. There are plenty of words we use here that you probably won’t know, let alone use in your web copy. The problem is that it tends to be the less outlandish phrases that jar most with local varieties of English.

For example, ordinary Australians don’t say things like “reach out”, “connect” or “touch base” on a regular basis, and those who do—in business, mainly—risk being seen as pretentious. If you’re using those phrases in customer emails, for example, you might be putting whole segments of your audience off.

But there are myriad weird variations to be careful of. Australians don’t say “easy as pie“, though we might say “easy as” in colloquial language. We say “different to”, rather than “different from” or “different than.” The list just goes on.

If you’re looking for potential vocabulary-related pitfalls, think also about things like the order receipts you email to customers. Will you call them purchase orders, receipts, invoices, tax receipts, tax invoices, shipping invoices, or something else completely?

And don’t overlook promotions, either. Will you run a Fall or Autumn Clearance? Will you call it a Festive Season Sale or a Christmas Sale? A Vacation Special or a Holiday Special?

As you can see, the implications of local terminology can affect pretty much every aspect of your communications. Working with native-speakers from the locations you’re targeting is probably the best way to ensure you don’t make any cultural faux pas in your copy.

Spell it again, Sam

Of course, there are regional spellings too. And expectations of punctuation. When I first started writing for many moons ago (I hope you have that idiom in your version of English), readers in the US would continually ask me why I’d used “ou” and “ise” “mis”-spellings, or haughtily point out my omission of serial commas. Readers from the UK and Australia, of course, had no problem with it.

In today’s commercial world, where we all know the difference between colour and color, the way you spell and punctuate your copy communicates something about your brand—even within a local market. An Australian brand using the word “programme” is likely to be extremely formal, or be presenting an extremely formal publication (like an annual report or an orchestral performance schedule). Or they might be a government department. Everyone else uses “program.”

Whatever you choose—to meet audience expectations by regionalizing your spellings, or to spell in the version of English you use in your native country—you’ll want it to be the right message, for the right audience.

Once you’ve decided how you’ll approach the issue, double-check with a local dictionary like the Cambridge (for UK english) or the Macquarie (for Australian English) to make sure you have it right.

Your say

We’ve all got war stories of badly used English. But there are, of course, limitations to what any site owner can afford to do as far as localized English goes. SitePoint, for example, tends to stick to US spellings, even though its audience clearly takes in readers from all over the globe (many of them not native English speakers).

And even if, like 99designs, you do localize some of your English-language content to reflect regional variations, there’s still probably a limit to how far you’ll go. Will you produce American- and British-English versions of your ebooks? Your system emails? That would have a big impact on your content management overhead—and the associated budgets.

What have you noticed—and changed—in your own site’s copy to meet users’ expectations of English language? Do you feel hesitant to use locally accepted English in your text, in case some users don’t get it? How much does English localization matter to your business? Tell us about it in the comments.

  • Paul

    How true this is. Sitting on web forum for great number of years, I reminded the US members that there is more people outside US than in.

  • That is so true! I didn’t think it was an issue until we went global with (I mean English is English?!). It was first developed for a South African market with UK spelling, SA is more forgiving than most with a mixture of UK and US style english, so there were no complaints. Then we opened it to the US market and had to re-write it to keep the US partners happy. Then the UK started complaining of “spelling mistakes” so we had to create separate versions of the system for UK / US. Now some pedantic South Africans complain that words are spelt wrong whichever version we use depending if they have a UK or US based education :D You can’t win.

    • Georgina

      Timothy, “spelt” is a case in point ;) In the US, it’s “spelled.” Ah, the irony!

      Thanks for sharing your international English tale of woe :) I’m curious as to how you keep the two versions separate and current. Do you have two style guides? How do you make sure copy updates are carried across both versions simultaneously?

      • Sven

        Keeping two different localizations of English separate, should not be any different than normal multilingual support.

        Using a i18n system like “GNU gettext” for example will sort this, since you only have one set of source application/code files, and instead have several translation files one for each supported language. With any update you just need to make certain these translation files are up to date.

      • Georgina

        Hey Sven,
        Thanks for your thoughts :) I think my comment was a bit vague: I was meaning more in terms of process, rather than technology. Who’s responsible for making sure that the translation files are up to date, and that copy changes are applied across all versions as needed?

        I’m interested in the way this stuff is handled within the business. I get the sense that quite a few businesses moving from single-version sites to localized versions struggle (or fail) to develop robust processes around this stuff. And copywriters who might previously have had complete control over copy through CMSs may also struggle with a perceived reduction in that sense of control or agency.

      • Sven

        The way this is normally handled on the systems we setup for clients, is that first the update is completed in the main language in a development environment.

        After that we run the software for the i18n system used, which update the localized files with the changes in the text.

        These files are then sent to the separate translation companies or persons who update that language. They then open the file in the software, which will tell them which lines/paragraphs that has been added/edited together with showing the English (main language) version of the text, allowing them to quickly update the new content.

        But yes, you are correct in that you do separate the process from the copywriter, meaning making updates is a larger process. Which means that for each additional language you add to the site, the cost for the upkeep grows.

        Not to mention that there is several countries (Several in Europe) that has specific laws that you fall under if you sell a product and target the country using their native language. I.e. regarding if you need to offer money back guarantee, return period, warranty etc. So it can pay off to have the legal in place as well before deciding to offer the website in a specific language.

        In addition, if you offer your website in a different language, your customers will also expect to receive support in the same language. This will also increase your cost on the support department.

        I normally go through the added costs with any client that ask for multilingual support (i.e. cost for maintaining the different languages in the future, not making the system multilingual), and to date I believe around 60% decided to keep their website in only one language. After all from a customer perspective, you do a lot better by doing one language well, than several poorly.

  • Jimmy

    For me, one of the worst things, is when you are on a forum, and someone from the USA asks for help, but begins by saying “Hey!” which sounds really rude to British ears, but seems to be totally normal to them.
    Incidentally, I love that I came to this article from a Sitepoint email advertising some new “Tutorals” – pretty sure the missing letter ‘I’ isn’t anything cultural!

  • If all you colonials didn’t keep corrupting our language, we wouldn’t have this problem :-D

    • Georgina Laidlaw

      :o Cue: outrage! ;)

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