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How to Write English as a Global Language

by Martin A. Schell

After reading my previous article about localization becoming less effective as a global strategy in the 21st century, join me now in taking a fresh look at alternatives.

In recent decades, we can see an increasing need for the development of human infrastructure, especially the ability to express oneself clearly to audiences who do not share one's cultural background. In addition, English-language content needs to become user-friendly to a broader range of people, who differ widely in fluency.

This article explains why and how English should be written more clearly so it can function better as a global language.

Most readers are probably thinking here of interactions between native and nonnative speakers. However, the role of "lingua franca" means that English is being used more and more between two non-native speakers as a neutral "third party" language. Communication in English can be tricky when the non-native speakers come from entirely different language families (e.g., a Thai talking to a Mexican, or an Egyptian writing to a Korean).

As I mentioned in my previous article, there are 85 languages that each have more than 10 million speakers. Translating a web page into all of them would still fail to serve 21.9% of the world's population (Lewis, 2009). 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.

The best alternative is for users to view the English version of a web site. This practical solution is already in widespread use in countries that are not "important" enough (in the eyes of most web designers) to deserve localization.

In such situations, a fluent speaker of English might sit beside a friend who is surfing, providing him or her with impromptu translation. Such informal translations are common but not well-publicized. Formal translations are better known; for example, a company's overseas branch might hire a local bilingual to translate an English-language web page into the local language.

The true challenge for a savvy worldwide web design team in the 21st century is how to produce English content that will be easily understood by the very diverse range of users who inhabit our planet. Global English content is easier for non-native speakers who select the English version of a web site; it is also easier for translators (both native and non-native speakers) to handle when they localize web content.

How to Write Globally

Let's take a closer look at how Global English can facilitate the sharing of knowledge via the World Wide Web, enabling the internet to benefit more of humanity.

When writing for a global audience, it is essential to adopt an attitude that welcomes readers who are unfamiliar with American or British English idioms and who may be incompletely fluent in the global language. Writers should minimize the use of idioms, buzzwords, and unexplained acronyms (e.g., ROTFL = Rolling On The Floor, Laughing), all of which tend to convey an attitude of exclusivity that limits the audience.

Another important aspect of Global English is the use of simpler syntax, which can greatly increase the number of eager worldwide readers while having only a slight impact on the writer's style.

As our online spring sale is being announced sometime during the coming month, don't forget to check the web site often, because you will, we are sure, be very happy to see what we will offer for sale at that time.

Our spring sale will be announced on our web site next month. Please bookmark this page and visit it again at that time. We are excited about the new items and feel confident that many of them will appeal to you.

In some cultures, it is considered polite to be less direct. Regardless of culture, an indirect approach is generally preferred in contexts where the writer is giving bad news or is concerned that the reader might disagree with the content. However, you should avoid ambiguity, even when you need to be indirect. Remember that it takes less effort to approach a delicate subject clearly than to undo confusion.

An example of a confusing statement:
We're not really saying "no" because we're still somewhat uncertain.

A clearer version:
We're not sure yet.

Negotiations will sometimes require you to be indirect as part of your strategy. Nevertheless, your indirect statements should be clear statements: easy to understand, or at least easy to translate.

Consider the differences among the following three statements that a buyer might make to a seller:
1. We were hoping that you would play ball with us. (indirect, unclear due to idiom)
2. We would like you to suggest some ways to reduce the total cost of our order. (indirect, clear)
3. The cost is too high. If you do not reduce your prices, we cannot buy the goods. (direct, clear)

In situations where you want to be direct, avoid the tendency to overload your sentences. More words do not always make a sentence clearer. Using a lot of compound nouns, verbs, and modifiers that overlap in meaning can bloat a sentence, turning it into an unintentional test of the reader's patience.

Instead of:
The Chairman and the Directors warmly and heartily welcome and invite you to our beautiful and charming city.

Try something closer to:
The entire Board enthusiastically welcomes you to our beautiful city.

Some web content producers prefer a tight style that relies on images and uses words sparingly. However, when writing for a global audience, one needs to build flexibility into the content so that it can survive possible mistranslation of one or more terms. Don't be shy about restating ideas, because a little redundancy can be useful.

For example:
If you prefer to look at hard copy before ordering, we would be happy to mail you our current catalog. To receive the print version, click here and then input your postal address in the catalog request form.

Note the redundancy of key terms in this example: "hard copy ... catalog ... print version" and also "mail ... postal address".

Get Feedback!

When in doubt, show a draft of your document to someone who is unfamiliar with its topic and ask him or her to give feedback after reading it. If your reader understands some phrases or sentences in a way different from your intention, don't defend your usage by explaining verbally -- your spoken words are not part of the text! Accept the feedback and rewrite the ambiguous passages until they become clear.

In sum, it is always a good idea to write in globally understandable English. If your content is later translated, Global English will be easier for your translator(s) to work with. If you write for a worldwide audience that includes people whose native language is not English, they will appreciate the fact that your web pages are easier to understand than those at most other English-language web sites.

Additional tips are archived at Globally Speaking.

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* or visiting his web site

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