You probably don’t want to sail over the heads of the growing portion of your customers and employees whose first language is not English.

Then there are the many people viewing your site from countries where English is not the main language. You want to connect with them too. That’s why you’re on the world wide web.

You can’t ignore two billion people

The British Council estimates that one billion people are actively learning English, a number that could double by 2020.

You don’t want to ignore all the people who don’t share your easy command of the language. Not if they matter to you or your business.20141010_115748

Many of the international students I teach want to improve their English to advance their careers. Negotiations among people in Brazil and China, for example, are often conducted in English.

In addition to formal education, many prospects are practicing their English, and spending money, through video games, e-stores and other personal interests they pursue online.

Learners will understand common nouns and verbs and basic grammar rules, but miss subtleties.

Most do not understand jargon or specialized terms of your profession. They’re learning from teachers in cultures with different terms and expressions. For example, people in Britain and India wear “trainers,” while North Americans sport “running shoes” or “sneakers.”

How they figure it out

To understand what your organization has to say or sell, ESL (English as a Second Language) readers and listeners are either looking up the words they don’t understand or trying to figure out their meaning from the context you provide.

They are taught to read, listen to or view your content twice, the first time for gist, or main thought, the second time for the details. Make it easy for them.

Listening and reading are usually easier than talking and writing, so many of your foreign site visitors, as well as immigrant employees and prospects, will grasp your main message if you apply these five tips.

  1. Keep it simple. While this is almost always good advice for a general audience, it’s even more important for the ESL segment.
  1. Stay away from, or provide context for, idioms that do not translate literally. For example, don’t assume everyone understands what “in the red” or “we’ve got your back” means.
  1. With words that vary according to country, offer alternatives. For example, today I saw an Old Navy ad for “rompers,” which we don’t say in Canada. Then I checked the Forever 21 site, that listed “rompers and jumpsuits.” I get it. So will ESL students, no matter where their English teachers and text books came from.
  1. Keep in mind that English learners will look up the unknown word on a translation tool, probably Google translate. So use words that will translate the way you intend.
  1. Provide enough context so English learners can figure out what you mean. In addition to words, this context can be provided through images, sounds and action.

To better understand how English learners feel, try brushing up on other languages by using the free site duo lingo or watching television or movies in other languages. It’s easier to write for people once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes—or should I say once you’ve shared their experience.

If English is your first language, thank your parents every day. That alone gives you a huge advantage in the global economy. But you still have to make the effort if ESL people are at all important to you.

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5 tips for writing for people whose English is not as good as yours
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