Most English speakers automatically assume that English is the language of the internet, but the figures show that this isn’t actually true. While the internet may have been born speaking the English language, today there are at least 34 languages of note used online, and native English-speakers account for only a third of all web surfers worldwide.
This ratio is going to tip further and further towards multilingualism as time goes on and internet accessibility improves around the world, as the number of web pages in languages other than English steadily climbs to surpass those in the internet’s ‘lingua franca’. Projects like the EU-funded ‘Multilingual Web’, organized by the W3C, are recognizing this shift in the status quo, and are working towards ways to make the web more accessible for people of all languages.
Your average website designer should be aware of this shift. Not long ago, if you had ten domains or sub-domains in different languages, that made you a ‘global website’. Today the baseline is more than 20.
If you’re not a major multinational company, though, it’s unlikely you’re going to have the resources or impetus to build 20 different localised websites with different languages and designs. There are, however, certain things you can do that will make your English-language site more accessible to people from all cultural backgrounds.
Different cultures have been proven to have different aesthetic preferences in terms of what they want in website design, so how can you appeal to both a German who wants a clean, minimalist site, and a Chinese web surfer, who likes colourful graphics, animation and plenty of explanatory content?
There’s no way you can appeal to both with the one site, so it’s a matter of finding a happy medium that works for you and won’t alienate viewers from both ends of the spectrum. However, there are some rules you can employ to make your site easier to navigate across a range of languages, especially those which read right-to-left instead of left-to-right. Go for horizontal navigation, as demonstrated by website the Horizontal Way, or alternatively keep everything on the one page with as symmetrical a design as possible, like the site for this Australian design company Hive.
Keep your load times down for readers in countries with low internet speeds by avoiding using lots of Flash – this will also help with your Google rankings, since load times are factored into the algorithm. Alternatively, build one Flash site for broadband users and one basic site for dial-up users.
Also, keep your colour scheme neutral – colours can have vastly different meanings between cultures, but you can’t go wrong with black and white or blue and white.
Machine translation tools such as Google Translate have taken leaps and bounds in recent years and, depending on the language combination, the results can be anywhere from perfect to reasonably comprehensible. In any case, adding a free translation widget like Google Translate to your website means that visitors of any language will at least be able to get the sense of what your site says, even if it doesn’t read perfectly, and this is where point number three comes in.
Keep it simple. Machine translation engines are absolutely literal, so it’s best to stick to short, to-the-point sentences and avoid flowery or colloquial language. For instance, if you’re talking about cars, use ‘cars’ instead of ‘motors’, ‘rides’ or ‘wheels’, as the translation engine likely won’t understand those slang terms in the context.
This may hamper your creativity, but at the end of the day, using clear, concise copy is useful not only for your foreign language readers, but for your English-language readers as well, as any journalism 101 course will teach you.
Lastly, check out some of the big international websites, like Facebook, Google and Coca Cola, to see the ways in which they’ve adapted their design framework to be understandable and accessible to people from all cultural backgrounds, and you’ll be well on your way to developing a multicultural site – and boosting your traffic with visitors from around the world.