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Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations llc writes about language and the business of translation.

Are Non-Native English Speakers Reading Your Documents?

date, time & measurement for global audiences
A slide from my presentation on Writing for Global Audiences

How many of your U.S. customers are not native English speakers? How many of your international customers are in countries where English is not commonly spoken? How many of your business customers’ employees speak a language other than English at home? How many of your business customers’ contractors are located in non-English-speaking countries?

If you replied none to all four questions, this column will not help you to communicate more effectively with your customers, or their employees or contractors. But if any of your customers or their employees/contractors (your audience) are not fully fluent in English, you need to consider how well they understand your materials. This means not only your marketing texts, but also the manuals and other documentation that may accompany your products.

Depending on the number of people in your audience who speak the same language (for example, Spanish), you may want to have your documents translated into that language. If you choose that route, there are ways in which you can not only make your translator’s life easier, but also ensure a better and more consistent foreign-language text. See my blog post, What Can I Do to Help My Translators Do a Better Job? for tips on this topic.

But if people who read your documentation or marketing texts speak a variety of different languages, but also know English, translating everything into multiple languages may not be cost-effective. Even though your text will only be distributed in English (or in English plus one or two other languages), your writer(s) should consider how it will be read by non-native English speakers. The rules for writing good documentation in English still apply: be clear, yet concise, use consistent terminology.

However, there are other issues that should be considered when writing for non-native English speakers, such as:

  • how measurements convert to the metric system
  • how dates are written (2/9 could be Feb. 9 or Sept. 2)
  • in which direction people read sequences (in left-to-right or top-to-bottom languages)
  • which grammatical features of English may pose difficulties (the gerund, complex tenses)

In short, your documents should be written in Global English. According to John R. Kohl, this is “English that an author has optimized for a global audience by following guidelines that go beyond what is found in conventional style guides.” Kohl’s book, the Global English Style Guide, is an excellent resource on this topic. Several companies and consultants (including yours truly) also offer training on Global English and/or editing of documents to conform to the principles of Global English. I will also speak on this topic at Spectrum 2015 in Rochester, NY March 29-31 and will lead a workshop about writing for non-native English speakers at ProComm 2015 in Limerick, Ireland, July 12-15.