The Copy Conundrum Redux: Localized English

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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This is a pretty outdated way of thinking.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.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
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Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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