Internationalisation, Localisation

Remember that languages have multiple variants

(updated 20 October 2018 to remove outdated information)

Regional differences can include vocabulary, spelling, accent or script. I’ve noticed this primarily with English, Chinese and Portuguese – developers think, probably unconsciously, that US English, Brazilian Portuguese and Simplified Chinese are the only versions of those languages that exist. Admittedly these are broad user bases, but there are still people in other Portuguese-, Chinese- and English-speaking countries who may very well appreciate having their dialect represented. In the case of English, between one-third and half the native speakers use ‘Commonwealth’ (for lack of a better word) English forms (that is, colour is written with a u, centre is written with the r before the e and the ‘l’ is doubled in some verbs like cancelled, labelled and travelled). Apart from the US, Philippines and Liberia, every other English-speaking country, including high-population ones that use English as an administrative language like India and Nigeria, uses a form of Commonwealth English. Large companies’ ignoring Commonwealth dialects may come across as arrogant or wilfully ignorant, especially if that ignoring extends to spellcheckers and displayed dates.

If your team has the time, money and people available to handle this, including multiple variants of a language is a good idea. Microsoft and Apple learned this lesson with Windows 8 and MacOS Mojave. If you are a large company and want to use the word Favourites for a bookmarking system, you’ll want to create versions that reflect both common spellings of this word. Smaller companies have fewer resources and may not be able to maintain multiple translations, but that’s not an excuse for Microsoft or Adobe to do the same thing.

If you’re a developer from an English-speaking country outside the US, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to cater only to the American audience by spelling words differently from your normal style without offering a version that reflects both your dialect and the dialect of many of your users. There are customers outside the USA who may appreciate their local dialect being included. If you take the entire Commonwealth plus Ireland into account that’s over a billion people. Many of these countries, like India and Nigeria, have other dominant languages, but administrative and academic English usually follows a British-based standard.

The same applies to Chinese if you’re familiar with both Traditional and Simplified Chinese scripts. There are Chinese-speakers outside the People’s Republic of China and Singapore.

And in the case of Portuguese, there are enough differences between European/African Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese that it helps to offer both if you can. Users of Blizzard Software have complained about a ‘Portuguese’ version for Portugal that is written in Brazilian Portuguese, making it difficult for Portuguese users to understand. Offer both if you can – don’t claim to offer something only to have it not meet the criteria.

It’s especially annoying when you encounter only US English, Brazilian Portuguese and Simplified Chinese as options in an application, but the same application offers Canadian French and Swiss German along with French and standard Hochdeutsch. English has a much larger user base than Swiss German, and the spelling differences between Swiss German and Standard German are similar to British, Canadian and American spellings.

And if you claim to offer a localisation in a specific dialect, be sure it’s actually in that dialect. You don’t want to have an app that claims to be in Serbian Cyrillic only to have portions of it written in Latin letters, or something supposedly in Swiss German that uses the spelling standards of Germany and Austria. If I choose English (UK), I shouldn’t see a Favorites panel or a Help Center . For example, in the British English version of Windows 8, most spellings and terms are changed (so I have a Favourites panel in Windows Explorer), but they left some words like Accessibility Center (sic) unchanged. Luckily, Microsoft corrected this to Centre in Windows 10.

If free and open-source software products can offer different language variants, so can paid-for software projects. Microsoft and Apple have billions of dollars each. Surely they could afford a localisation team. The Gimp, for example, has at least two English versions available, as does LibreOffice. If you’re an open-source project, explicitly allow multiple language variants if people are willing to work on them. Even some commercial software projects allow users to contribute languages via platforms like Transifex.

If you do not have the resources to make multiple variants of a language, avoid using contentious words as much as possible. If you want to use a bookmarking system, use words whose spelling does not change, like Bookmarks, Liked or Starred rather than Favourites. On a more casual site you could abbreviate ‘Favourite’ to ‘Fave’, thus avoiding the problem of variant spellings. There are some technically ‘British’ spellings that are secondary variants in the US (but American spellings tend to be acceptable only within its borders, at least for native speakers). For example, you might want to spell cancelled and cancelling with two Ls, theatre with the -re ending, and grey with an e as a compromise.’

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