Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Country doesn't always imply language

This is for anyone who runs a web site (or provides web based content) that serves a multilingual audience. Having said that, it is especially for big US firms that run into the language problem well after being established and profitable.

Multi-language support in software can be a real pain. I've experienced this myself, it's no fun building it in and can cause lots of bugs. But it's not what I want to talk about today. The technical part of it can be solved, however annoying and costly.

I want to discuss the bad assumptions made by many companies that offer multilingual websites. There is a known 'truth' that everyone in the US speaks and wants to be spoken to in English. That is because the official language in the US is English. Based on this truth, many companies extrapolate the following algorithm:
  1. Determine user's location
  2. Find official language(s) of said location
  3. Present web site (or app content) in said language (or a choice if multiple official languages exist)
This is not a bad algorithm if the 'truth' presented above was actually true. The reality is not so clear cut however. The real 'truth' is that while a majority of users in the US do indeed prefer English, there are plenty of users who want to see US content in a language different from English. Extrapolating form this means that there are many people in the majority of the world's countries who prefer to communicate in a language other than the country's official language. So the algorithm should be more akin to:
  1. Try really hard to recognize user from past, and determine their language of choice. Only if you can't then:
  2. Determine user's location
  3. Find top preferred language(s) of said location
  4. Present web site (or app content) in said language(s)
  5. Offer a means to switch language to any language you already support
This way you are not tying the location the user finds themselves in with the language that you speak to them.

A few examples that inspire this article:

Apple - My iTunes shop is exclusively in Dutch although you darn well know I speak English. You simply hard code language to location. Also, switching the date format should not switch the name of days. I want to use the Dutch date format (so I don't always have to transpose day and month) but I still want to see Tuesday on my phone, not Dinsdag. The rest of my phone is in English, so why?

Google - I can be signed into my Google profile and yet still be presented with stuff in Dutch. Yes I live in the Netherlands, but I've told you many times I speak English. Happens all the time, but usually fixable after some poking around or refreshing stuff. Was really challenging when I was in Asia and had no idea what the heck any of the settings were. A great example is the preview of this blog post. Why does it say 'Voorbeeld'? I'm signed in and you know I prefer English.

My very favourite language challenge albeit not the same problem as I describe so far is Google maps. Guys, I know it's cool and globally fair to label the maps in their native language, but if I decide to visit Tokyo, you can bet your butt I will be using Bing maps because Google maps makes me illiterate for all practical purposes. Who is the consumer of this product? Is there a single human being that reads all the world's languages?

Language is very personal and intimate. It is an essential part of our personalities, our families and our culture. It reaches much deeper than features, colours, design or any other part of your communication with us. Use this to your advantage. We are mobile and many of us live in countries where our first language is considered a foreign language. By remembering how we want to communicate helps you create a much more intimate relationship. By forcing us to speak a language we don't understand because of faulty assumptions quickly alienates us and breaks this intimacy.

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

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