You are writing for non-native English speakers
Whether you are aware of it or not, I can pretty much guarantee that your audience is international.
And that they are not all native English speakers.
It’s 2015, and there are almost three billion Internet users from all over the world, with over two thirds of them from developing countries. English may be the lingua franca, but it isn’t always the first language of your reader.
English is definitely the most common language of the Internet, and therefore it’s increasingly important for your business and your writing to consider how to connect with non-native English speakers.
We all blog, we write, we sell books in many countries (hopefully!) and our first connection with our international audience is often in English.
[Editor’s note: and as a Brit I can say that even in the English speaking world we don’t always talk the same language! My facebook friends sometimes find my ‘very British’ phrases rather amusing. In a nice way I am sure ;)]
What this means is, that in today’s world, it’s essential to think about how (and by whom) your content will be read, as you create it. Make your writing clear, concise, and ‘translatable’.
Whether the audience is reading your content in English as their second language, or whether they’ve used a service like Google Translate to translate your content into their own language, we’ve created a set of rules that you can follow to make sure your message isn’t ‘lost in translation’.
1. Keep sentences short and neat
English becomes a lot more accessible to second language readers when sentences are kept simple. They are also much easier to translate, because those online tools often do a word-for-word translation. Simple sentences reduce the chance for mistakes, mistranslations, or misunderstandings.
There are two main ways you can do this.
Short is sweet
First, stick to short sentences. Length is important. Although you might want to vary the length so that you get a flow — too many short sentences can make your writing choppy.
Keep the average word length per sentence between 15 and 20 words. And use a short sentence (fewer than ten words) to complement and paraphrase the longer sentences. That combination makes your writing easier to understand.
And, secondly, if your style tends to long sentences, then look at how you can rearrange or split your phrases. Use a full stop instead of a comma. Two sentences are easier to read than one long sentence with conditional phrases.
Ben Mudrack gives an extensive set of examples of how to split your sentences — taking technically complex and long sentences, and splitting them into shorter, simpler phrases.
Mudrack singles out sentences with lists, sentences beginning with conjunctions, and timelines and progressions. All of which make good fodder for splitting.
2. Kill your phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs. These are verb phrases that are made up of multiple words. And they are a big no-no when it comes to translation or writing for non-native English readers.
They are often they are culturally specific to us-English speakers (I want to say Brits in particular but I don’t know the data) and don’t translate well (or at all!), leaving the reader with an extremely confusing sentence.
Take a look at some examples of how substituting one slightly more complex word for three or four shorter words is usually a better option:
With regard to
To fall through
And so on…
Although there is a chance that the one word will be translated incorrectly, the more words there are, the more chances there are for mistranslation.
Even if the whole phrasal verb is translated correctly, it’s quite possible that it still won’t make sense to the reader.
3. Talk locally, write globally
Write as you speak. I say it a lot and when it comes to speaking, getting out in front of your audience is a great way to get known and grow your credibility. You gain trust and respect and this can bring bigger and better opportunities.
And in small groups especially, it’s easy to want to use the local lingo. It helps create a bond with our audience — we are ‘one of the boys’ (or girls!). Language is a great connector.
Which is wonderful if you are writing for that same audience. But it’s not so great when you want your blogging and content to be seen internationally. Try to avoid bringing your spoken idiosyncrasies into your writing.
Writing with an international audience in mind means you can cut down any barriers to understanding for second language learners. And, again, it makes your words easier to translate, and easier to localise into whatever part of the world your reader is in.
For example, it might be appropriate to write about ‘hitting a home run’ for a US audience, but will people from other countries understand that? Sporting analogies in particular don’t always translate — although football (by which I mean soccer!) does seem to have a global reach. At least for men.
When you write, think about what is culturally appropriate to the majority of your audience. Avoid metaphors, and watch out for your descriptive writing, that might only make sense in your part of the world.
4. Culturally sensitive
While we can’t all be expected to know everything about world cultures, at least keep in mind that different cultures have different cultural symbology. And will utilise different images and designs that make sense to them.
Even website design is prey to this. What works for some cultures won’t necessarily ‘translate’ for others.
For example, for many of us in the west, the colour blue symbolises serenity and calmness; it’s often used to convey trustworthiness, and loyalty. But in Chinese culture, it is a colour that represents melancholy and distress. Emotions that are most likely not top of our list when we think about creating our ideal reader experience!
5. Technically international
On a more simplistic note, when you’re using technical phrases — measurements and currency for example — always provide a universal benchmark, or an alternative measure so that your work can be translated and understood by readers around the world.
Food and fitness writers — are you using metric or imperial measurements? What makes sense to me in grams, won’t translate to my American friend who prefers her recipes to measure in cups and ounces.
And for the runners amongst us, does our favourite app measure miles or kilometres?
And money. If you can’t provide a translation, at least use a currency that has universal relevance. The dollar is a good place to start! You might be writing to your local audience in New Zealand, or Latvia, but also include a US Dollar amount in brackets as you want your article to be found on the search engines, or shared on social media to a wider audience.
And avoid colloquialisms, such as ‘bucks’. Just say what you mean. Dollars. US dollars. Or put a translation note beside it.
6. American or British English?
This is a thorny question and I don’t profess to have a single right answer. It’s my personal preference to use British English. It’s by choice and it’s a conscious one (I’m British, after all).
Many of your readers may be used to seeing American English. Many writers choose to use it, rather than their local British, Australian or Canadian English.
And remember that those online translation tools usually expect to see American English.
If you think your audience will be reading through a translation service, then switch to US English. You can set your spell checker to this by default and, although it takes a bit of re-training to replace the ‘s’s’ with ‘z’s’, it’s still easy for you to understand, and it will make it easier for your audience to connect with.
At the end of the day (you see — another phrase I should have edited out!), simplicity will always make for easier reading.
It’s easy (and fun) to get caught up in fancy word play or colloquialisms. It can impress our audience and help us feel important and intelligent. But, as the internet becomes increasingly more global, remember — so is your audience.
Keep your content creation — whether blog, book, or training courses — simple, understandable and translatable. It will ultimately help you reach that global audience more quickly, and make your words easier to understand when you do.
Clarity. Simplicity. Brevity.