People say "English is the global language," but do we use it that way? As of July 2013, about 55% of the pages on the world wide web are written in English, but how many of them are written in a way that can be understood by a worldwide audience?
Before the dawn of the 21st century, I began writing articles about English as a tool for global communication, in which I encouraged people to use the language with greater awareness. I feel that native speakers of English need to become more responsible about the global role of our language by speaking and writing it in a way that is more easily understood throughout the world.
Although we call it the world wide web, many web sites are not designed for a worldwide audience. Web pages frequently show a lack of global perspective. In particular, web content created by native speakers of a language often contains slang, casual syntax, and culture-specific humor, all of which tend to exclude non-native speakers.
By the middle of 2012, over 1/3 of the world's population (2.4 billion of humanity's 7.0 billion men, women, and children) already had access to the internet. For millions of internet users, especially those whose native language is not "important" enough for most localization efforts, English-language web pages are the primary source of online information from the international community.
The proportion of English-language web pages is likely to decline as more and more people come online from diverse cultures. However, English is still the most important language for accessing the world wide web, and it will probably remain so for many years to come. The most effective way to present your web site to a global audience is to produce its content in "Global English" so that it is easy for non-native speakers to understand.
The fact that English is spreading around the globe seems to clash with the fact that many companies are translating their documents into a greater number and variety of languages. A late 20th century trend (especially in the production of software manuals, marketing materials, and web sites) was to "localize" the translation of a document.
The term localization means modifying a translation to fit a local culture's patterns of language usage. For example, a training manual being shipped to Argentina might be published in a special Argentinian Spanish edition. A localized manual is vernacular: It speaks to the audience in a familiar style, with local idioms.
In contrast, globalization (or "internationalization") refers to editing a document before translating it. This means making the original English text clearer so that it will be easier to translate into a wide variety of languages. Although the original document may seem clear to a native English speaker, it probably contains idioms that cannot be easily translated.
Localization is very important for international marketing. Marketing depends on appealing to popular tastes, and this means using a language and style that consumers can identify with. In 1998, Apple Computer introduced the iMac in 140 countries, localizing their marketing materials into more than 50 languages and dialects.
Obviously, localization is expensive. The key question is not "Is it costly?" but rather "Is it cost-effective?" Costs naturally rise as a document is localized into more and more languages and dialects. Eventually, there will be diminishing marginal returns: The extra market share represented by adding more languages will not generate enough revenue to make localization into those languages profitable.
Human beings speak about 7,100 distinct languages. Among these, 393 languages each have over 1 million native speakers, including 85 languages that have over 10 million. Even if a document were translated into all 85 of the largest languages, about 21% of the world's people would still be left out. It's reasonable to assume that there will always be non-native speakers who need to use the English version of a document that accompanies a globally marketed product.
Written English that is intended for international distribution can be as brief as a few short phrases printed on the packing box of a television to highlight the new features. Or it might be a complete document, ranging from a small pamphlet that explains how to use a musical keyboard to a large manual that explains how to maintain and repair a commercial aircraft. In any case, the text should be written in clear, globally understood English.
Localization and globalization are complementary processes rather than an either-or choice. A document that will be widely disseminated should be globalized by an editor before it is given to the translators who will localize it for target markets. One way to understand the complementarity from the viewpoint of users is: Localization appeals to empathy by incorporating tacit aspects of a specific culture, while Global English aims for general accessibility by making text as explicit as possible.
For more details about the importance of using Global English to disseminate knowledge worldwide via the web, read about The Limits of Localization.
To understand some of the practical aspects of internationalizing a document into Global English, visit our FAQ page.
For information about the number of internet users in various countries, see InternetWorldStats.com which is updated several times a year.
For estimates of the number of web pages in various languages, look at the W3Techs.com survey which is updated daily.
For information on the number of speakers of various languages worldwide, visit Ethnologue.
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