Some Facts To Begin With
Did you know that only about 16.4% of the world’s population speaks English either as the native language or as a secondary language (Wikipedia)?
A secondary language is not the same as a foreign language. A person’s secondary language is not the speaker’s mother tongue, but used in the area where the person lives. By contrast, a foreign language is taught and learned in areas where it’s not widely used. There are no statistics as to how many people speak English as a foreign language. For instance, I learned and use English as a foreign language.
A better picture is painted by the 55% percent of sites having English as the default or only language, when analyzing the top one million ranked sites by Alexa. In contrast, only 27% of internet users speak English. And since where demand is the supply quickly follows, non-English content sites in some major languages like Spanish, Chinese dialects, Russian or Arabic, currently have a superior growth rate than the English counterparts.
Knowing this, and seeing how some people are struggling to use English when communicating online (often using Google Translate), or simply remembering how difficult it was for me to express myself in the French market, I sometimes wonder why not more online businesses offer a multilingual content. Shortly after, I give my own answer.
Alternatives For Adding Multilingual Content To Your Site
The alternatives for having a content catered for various language speakers are either simple and… sort of unprofessional, or involve a lot of initial planning and maintaining duplicate content (and usually design variations) for each of the supported languages.
1. By far the ideal method to use (for the user experience of the target audience), is developing a site having the multilingual content in mind from the start.
For that, you need to know how flexible your design should be to accommodate the supported languages. It’s a question of average word lengths which vary between languages, character encoding(s), font sizes which need to be scaled up for some languages, cultural differences and even text direction. Sounds like a lot of variables, huh?
Well, there’s more. If you choose this path, never translate the content using an automatic translator! While you won’t have to hassle with hiring people that actually speak each language fluently, an automatic translation will make your content look unnatural and often make no sense. You don’t want that!
But usually the most costly feature that would need to be addressed is offering support in more than the default language. Most small online businesses won’t afford to hire additional support personnel (ideally native speakers familiar to local cultural particularities), unless catering to non-English speakers is really important to them.
And finally, any video, audio and image content on your site would also need to be translated. I know, that seems like the final straw, I never said this is easy.
If you do all that, I’m sure any non-English speaker that finds a familiar language on your site would have reasons to be thankful.
But why don’t you do the same on your site, Adrian, you might ask? Simply because I haven’t planned for it at the beginning. And because the costs would be higher than the benefits for AdriansHub.com.
2. How about using an automatic translator toolbar? It sure is a very handy and easy to implement solution, but it has a few major flaws.
First, I already said an automatic translation would look unnatural and often make no sense. Then, any content that is not text-based (video, audio, flash, image, etc.) will not be translated.
Also, one issue that might not be obvious at first glance. When using Google Translate toolbar for instance, you have a page written in a default language that is being translated on the fly, not different content for different languages. If your site allows any form of interaction (like a chat, blog comments, forum etc.), visitors/members using your site translated to their own language might be tempted to express themselves in the same language. This will turn content management into a nightmare.
The decision to add multilingual content is or should be based on a costs versus benefits analysis. It is important to plan ahead and know if you want to have content in different languages before you launch a site, otherwise you’ll be forced to implement major structural changes. And finally, while automatic translation is a facile way to tick a point on your to-do list, it is not a very professional approach.