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Beyond Localization: The
Rising Importance of Global English
by Martin A. Schell
Conventional wisdom at the end of the 20th
century held that teams of translators should be summoned to convert web pages
and other documents so that the content could reach a global audience. The
teams produced "localized" versions of the web site, meaning they not only
translated pages into "major" languages (e.g., Spanish, Chinese) but also
adapted the content to the culture of end users who speak those languages.
The number of people who access the Internet surpassed 1 billion by the end
of 2005. As more and more people come online in countries that speak "minor"
languages, the task of disseminating information in translated form becomes
increasingly complex. One must continually add new languages to a web site's
display options. But even if such an extra effort is made, the site's designers
will inevitably ignore large segments of the world who are not native speakers
of any of the languages that were chosen.
There are 6,909 living languages, including 389 that have over 1 million
speakers each (Lewis,
2009). It is not feasible to translate content into all of them. How
often do you see sites that offer the option of viewing pages in Bengali, Marathi,
or Telugu, each of which has over 60 million native speakers?
Localization is an excellent way to target a specialized market and increase
one's appeal there. My point is not to abandon localization, but rather to rethink
it as a global strategy for the worldwide web. Adding up parts of the world according
to language groups will never equal the whole; in fact, that additive strategy is
likely to amount to less of the whole as time goes on.
In Designing Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen gives a common
explanation for excluding languages from web site localization efforts: They are
spoken in areas that "do not have enough users to make localization worthwhile."
However, the world's Internet users nearly quintupled during the first nine
years of this millennium: from 361 million at the start of 2001 to 1,802 million
at the end of 2009 (a 399% increase). Dramatic increases occurred on every
continent, ranging from 140% in North America to 1,810% in Africa. Technologically
advanced countries more than doubled their numbers of internet users, while other
countries made huge strides in catching up. Among the world's 10 most populous
countries, the amounts of increase during this nine-year period were: 1,607% in China,
1,520% in India, 146% in the U.S., 1,400% in Indonesia, 1,341% in Brazil, 13,716% in
Pakistan, 456% in Bangladesh, 11,891% in Nigeria, 1,360% in Russia, and 104% in Japan
Internet World Stats, 2009.
The rapid increases in Internet penetration worldwide compel us to realize that
localization will become less effective at reaching the world's online population
as time goes on. The number of Internet users who speak "minor" languages is rising,
increasing the complexity and cost of a comprehensive localization effort. Internet
penetration has reached 52.0% in Poland (November 2008), 48.5% in Iran (December 2009),
34.5% in Turkey (March 2008), 33.4% in Romania (September 2008), 25.7% in Vietnam (December 2009),
and 24.4% in Thailand (September 2009). Each of these six "minor" countries has a national
language that is spoken by over 20 million people Lewis, 2009.
The reason I indicate the month for each penetration figure is that Internet stats
change very quickly. The 399% increase from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2009
is equivalent to a steady rise of nearly 5% during each of the 36 quarters during
this 9-year period. Therefore, a table that cites surveys of countries that were
done at different times of year is inevitably inconsistent. Figures based on
surveys done near the beginning of a year could be under-reported by 5%, 10%, or more
in comparison with countries surveyed near the end of the same year. I appeal to my fellow
writers to represent data faithfully, because inaccuracies are likely to be echoed
by our readers.
The lack of web pages in certain languages is obvious to people who are native
speakers of those languages. If a web site does not consider their language
important enough to merit localization, users often seek the English version
of the site. At cybercafes in Indonesia (12.5% penetration as of September 2009),
it is common to see a fluent speaker of English sitting beside a friend who
is surfing, providing him or her with impromptu translation.
The incompleteness of localization is readily apparent to anyone who thinks
globally. Translating a document into each of the 85 languages that has more
than 10 million speakers would fail to serve 21.9% of the world's population
In terms of Internet users, 17.4% of the world would be neglected by a localization
effort involving all of the top 10 languages spoken by
the online population. Does it make sense for a company to throw away 15% or
20% of its potential market by pretending that its huge localization effort
adequately serves "everyone"? Of course not.
One way to improve global outreach is to ensure that a web site has a version
of its content in Global English. This does not mean American English, British
English, Indian English, or any other well-known variety. Global English is
English that is written or edited in a way that maximizes its global accessibility,
specifically the ease with which non-native speakers can understand it.
Please note that the aim here is not to restrict anyone's freedom to publish
web content in his or her own language. In fact, I celebrate the unstoppable
decline in the fraction of the world's web pages that are written in English.
The essence of a movement toward Global English is not to increase the proportion
of web pages that are in English, but rather the proportion of web sites that
make English available as an option for readers. The success of a Global English
strategy is measured by the total number of visitors to a web site, not by the
number who choose the site's English version instead of another language.
My next article will discuss how to write English so that it is
copyright © 2009, 2010 Martin A. Schell
About the Author:
Martin A. Schell has been teaching at NYU's Stern School of Business as
an adjunct since 2005. His consulting projects include designing and presenting
writing workshops for the Ford Foundation and World Bank in Jakarta, as well as
performing cost-of-living surveys for The Economist. In 2008, the journal
World Englishes published his article "Colinguals Among Bilinguals". Martin
spends most of each year in his wife's hometown of Klaten, Central Java. He
can be contacted by emailing schell *at* alumni.princeton.edu or visiting his web