Joe Leech

How to write content for an international audience

The reader of your website copy might struggle with certain parts of English we find easy.

The English language is the most spoken second language in the world. English has 250 million native speakers vs 350 million non-native speakers. 12% of the US population does not speak English as their primary language. A proportion of your website users may struggle with the copy.

Before I got in to this UX thing I was and English teacher. I taught English to speakers of other languages from China and Japan to Europe and and South America. I’ve also run user research and UX design projects in 38 countries around the world.

I learned a lot about the challenges of understanding English especially spoken by native speakers like Brits, Canadians, Americans and Australians and how to reduce that complexity by avoiding the certain parts of the language.

I sharing my tips to make the content on your website as easy to read as possible for non-native English speakers. I also talk about why many of the auto translation tools although seeming like a easy fix, can fail.

1. Avoid phrasal verbs like Take Off and Sign Up

English is littered with these two word verbs and on the face of it they seem really simple. That is until you dig into the specifics. What’s the opposite of take off? Is it take on? Well no, a plane takes off and then it lands. It doesn’t take on, that means to agree to do something.

The problem with phrasal verbs is that they don’t give much a clue as to what they mean and differ only in the second word or preposition.

Take out means food you collect from a restaurant and has no relation to take off which can mean remove clothing, but wait, do you take on clothing? No you put on clothing and you take down someone by wrestling them to the floor but you can take up a new hobby.

Where possible use equivalent standard English verb that isn’t followed by a preposition like on, up, down, out or off.

Tools like Google translate can’t always cope with phrasal verbs when they are split. For example the tiny difference between these really simple sentences makes a huge difference to the meaning; John takes his clothes. John takes his clothes off.

Hold on I hear you say. What about the phrasal verbs of the Internet age? Sign up or log in.


medium sign up and sign screenshot

Sign up next to sign in. If you aren’t very comfortable with English knowing which is the one you want to click on to create an account or to login.

Avoid sign up next to sign in as a choice for users. Use sign up and login. Or even better create an account and login.

Along the way log in has become login, a new verb.

2. The passive voice should be avoided (Avoid the passive voice)

There are two ways to write a sentence in English.

  • Sally ate two sausage for dinner. (active)
  • For dinner, two sausages were eaten by Sally. (passive)

The passive voice is often used in academic writing to remove the subject from the sentence This makes the sentance sound more objective.

In the real world use the active voice.

3. If you avoid conditionals your copy will be easier to read

If I had known then what I know now I would have done it very differently.

That sentence represents one of the most challenging in the English language. It talks about two events, both at different times.

Conditional sentences can be very subtly different, take these two examples. They mean roughly the same thing.

  1. If I have enough money, I will go to Japan.
  2. If I had enough money, I would go to Japan.

The difference between the two is the likelihood of me going to Japan, conditional 1 says it’s likely to happen. With sentence 2 it’s unlikely. It’s a subtle but important difference.

Where possible use one type of conditional, the first conditional. That is: If + Will. Avoid uses of the past conditional.

4. Avoid idioms like the plague

octopus in a garage
Octopus in a garage

Idioms can make your reader feel like an octopus in a garage or as they say in Spanish: ‘Estar más perdido que un pulpo en un garaje’. Idioms are specific sayings that have a strong cultural dimension.

You get the point. It’s a piece of cake really, don’t touch idioms with a barge pole. That is if you know what a barge pole is or that something is easy if it’s described as a piece of cake. Most non-native English speakers would be lost at this point.

This is another reason auto translation systems like Google Translate can fail. They can’t translate ‘You can’t see the wood for the trees’ into it’s correct meaning ‘when you concentrate on the minute details of a problem, you lose sight of the overall picture’. Auto translators translate literally, so the words get translated but not the meaning and idioms are different across languages and cultures. Or as they say in German ‘You have tomatoes on your eyes’ that is you can’t see the obvious right in front of you.

5. Use simple words where possible

English has 800,000 distinct words and the average native English speaker has vocabulary of 20,000 words. Comparing this to Spanish the average speaker has a vocabulary of 10,000 and there are a total of 83,000 words in Spanish. Mandarin has around 370,000 words.

This larger vocabulary means that in English we have a number of words that can be used (mostly) interchangeably; eg enrolment vs sign up, huge vs enormous, tiny vs miniscule. The words often come from previous invasions meaning we can choose from Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Latin, French, Norse etc.

Where possible use a simple word instead of a complex word. The Voice of America has a list of 1,500 simple words. Use this as a reference to help write English that is simpler to read.

If you follow these 5 tips you will be able to write copy that is easy to read. It might not read like a great novel but your international users will thank you for it.

Launching and running an international website can be daunting. I’ve worked in 38 countries and 4 continents can help with international UX or product strategy.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I’m mr Joe and I help CEOs and their businesses thrive.

Success isn't incremental. It's a game of chutes / snakes and ladders; it's time to climb the ladders. I bring 15 years in tech, $20b in added revenue, experience with 30+ startups and FTSE / NASDAQ / Fortune 100 giants. Together we can do great things.

Working with me

Mr Joe in Audio

Latest Keynote: The Modern CEO