English as a second language

As I mentioned in my last guest blog post, my husband and in-laws are from Ecuador, so their first language is Spanish. I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker, and I have often had to deal with some relatives who know some English, but have not mastered enough English to be fluent. As you can imagine, this can be problematic. Over time, whether speaking or writing to them, I’ve found that I have to carefully think about my choice of words. Why? Most often, these relatives have to do two steps—they have to first understand how to translate individual words, then translate the combination of words to understand the meaning of my message. This means I have to translate my American, New Jersey English into more standardized English or global English for their better comprehension.

Every person who has been taught a language other than their own learns this process—and it’s not an easy one. Complications arise when a standardized version of a language is not used, and expressions or slang are used frequently. This happens in all languages, not just in English. There are so many expressions used in different versions of English alone, it’s confusing enough among the English speakers!

Here’s an example of what I mean:

British English:

I put my new telly in the boot of my car, and made a stop at the petrol station near the roundabout. Once I got home, I had to take the lift to get to my flat, because the telly was too heavy to carry. 

American English:

I put my new TV in the trunk of my car, and made a stop at the gas station near the traffic circle. Once I got home, I had to take the elevator to get to my apartment, because the TV was too heavy to carry. 

Both sentences say the same thing, yet there are some words that are significantly different. In both paragraphs, the speaker is saying that he/she put the new television set in the rear storage compartment of their automobile, made a stop at a fueling station near a circular road intersection, then had to take vertical transport equipment that moves between floors of a building to a suite of rooms forming one residence within that building.

So which one is easier to translate, especially for a non-native English speaker? Exactly. It’s not so easy to figure that out, especially once you realize there are also many more English dialects around the world beyond British and American.

This isn’t a phenomenon singled-out for English only. My husband does translations from Spanish into either English or German as a hobby, and he has told me that even among Spanish speakers, there are expressions and slang that he doesn’t understand from other countries sometimes. Add in the complication of cultural nuances of what’s acceptable and what’s not, and it can become a real mess!

There are plenty of people globally—including your customers—who think using a tool like Google Translate or Bing Translator is an acceptable tool to help with translation. It helps, but it’s far from foolproof. I’m not completely dismissing these tools as they can work in a pinch. They aren’t the most reliable tools available, yet they are probably among the most easily accessed and available tools worldwide. Machine translation tools are improving all the time, but we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t help that all languages are continually evolving as well.

Scott Abel once threw out a statistic during a presentation I attended, in which he stated that as American users, we forget that 96% of web users are not in the US. We don’t all speak English globally. In fact, less than 6% of the global population speaks English well, but don’t necessarily read or write it well.

So what can technical writers and content strategists do in these situations to help our ESL customers worldwide? You need to find reliable tools, like Acrolinx, and partners who specialize in global readiness (like Content Rules) who can help you figure out how to use neutral language to make translations and localization most effective for clients, whether you have English-only content, or whether you have content that will be translated into multiple languages, to ensure that your message to your customers is clear.

Is this an easy thing to do? Not at all! But it’s a good practice to improve continually as you figure out your content going forward. You need to start asking yourself, “Are my words being used in a way that could easily be translated by a person whose language is not English? Could it be correctly translated by a machine to deliver the message I want?” If it isn’t, then you need to re-examine your content, and come up with a new strategy.

Danielle Villegas

Danielle M. Villegas is currently a web publishing consultant at BASF North America, with a background in client services, project management, and web content management.Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012, and has continued to flourish.