5 Content Tips to Engage Second Language English Speakers
Just because your audience knows English doesn’t mean they know your English. The world’s 1.75 billion English speakers learned all different kinds of it. For many it's their second language. Here are five ways to globalize your marketing content to better engage those second language English speakers.
There are 1.75 billion English speakers on the planet. You’re likely trying to connect with a portion of them.
The thing is this: They speak all different types of English, at all different skill levels, learned in all sorts of different environments.
The kind of English spoken in Nevada is different than the kind spoken in Norway. As it happens, many Nevadans are Latinos and many of those Latinos speak English as their second language, not their first. Same goes for Norway. Lots of English, but it’s their second language.
So just because your target audience knows English doesn’t mean they know your English. Maybe your English has doohickey in it. And chocoholic. And BOGO. Does theirs?
To really connect with your audience, you want your message crafted so they can understand it easily, without undue effort or frustration, no matter what their background is.
This means using a form of English that some people call international English, but which in the business world is more commonly known as global English, or English that uses vocabulary and structure crafted for the greatest comprehension across cultures among people who speak English as a second language.
This is true whether your message is in a mass email, a landing page, a web ad, or a letter to that one important client you want to land.
It’s true whether your target audience is in your country or in another country.
If you’re creating marketing content that reaches second language English speakers, here are five ways to globalize your English.
Tip 1: Avoid idioms and figurative language
English is full of idioms and set phrases that make no literal sense, like behind the curve or the upside.
My favorite oddity here is a hard and fast rule. That definition of fast is so old you have to blow dust off it, but today’s second language audiences likely don’t even know it. A hard rule, sure, but a rule that’s fast? You mean, like Usain Bolt? Like Porsche?
Sports idioms are a special danger. If you try to hit a home run with an audience that doesn’t play baseball, you’ll be on a sticky wicket.
A related language habit to avoid is the use of secondary definitions. For example, most of those 1.75 billion people know what pretty means—it means something like beautiful. It does, that is, until you use the phrase pretty expensive. Then your overseas reader might not be so confident they understand what you’re talking about.
Read your content with the literal meanings of the words in mind, and change any that don’t use the obvious definition.
Tip 2: Keep parts of clauses together
You can, as in this sentence, start but not immediately complete, because you’ve introduced an interruption, the main clause, thereby splitting the clause.
Wow, an impressively bad sentence. Instant headache.
English becomes challenging for second language speakers when you move from simple and compound sentences to complex ones—that is, when you bring in dependent clauses. Once you start mixing up clause parts like above, like Picasso putting two eyes on the same side of the face, your reader starts to sweat.
Here’s a more ordinary example from the business world: The criteria of the investigation team, following the most recent test results, need to be re-evaluated and, once management has approved them, distributed to the field offices.
The entire fate of criteria, the sole topic of conversation here, is completely buried under layers of gibberish and doesn’t take action until the very end. For a second language speaker, getting through that sentence is like doing multiplication in the air with your forefinger and trying to remember how many ones you carried.
Two sentences here would be a much clearer approach: The criteria of the investigation team needs to be re-evaluated. Then the criteria can be submitted for management approval and, after that, distributed to the field offices.
Tip 3: Avoid lesser known and non-standard English
There is a whole catalog of English vocabularies and varieties it would be wise to either avoid or explain, including:
Businessspeak - where you ping to check bandwidth, then outscale and synergize. If it’s a meeting, why would one call it a touchpoint? Will people touch one another? Does HR know about this?
Street language - like when you’ve worked so hard you’re fried and need to bail and hit up a bar. Or simply when you write, I’m good. Are you good? These are American examples, but there are many native English speakers who understand unconsciously that using this kind of language admits you to the In Crowd. The flip side is that it keeps others in the Out Crowd. Why would you want to do that? (A subset of street language is internet lingo.)
Acronyms and abbreviations - because LOL may have worldwide fame, but mgt. and EOD sure don’t. Here’s a U.S. example of the dilemma: To an American, AWOL seems just as common an acronym as ASAP, but the search term “ASAP” returns 203 million Google results, while “AWOL” returns only 5 million. AWOL originated in the U.S. military, and relatively few English speakers know it.
Tip 4: Include extra clues
To a second language speaker, the parts of a sentence that a native speaker would normally leave out are helpful context, like road signs when your phone navigation is dead.
Consider: The webinar on Tuesday concerned COVID-19 precautions. That has only one tiny, tiny clue about whether the webinar is in the past or the future: the D at the end of concerned. Whereas, The webinar that we had on Tuesday concerned COVID-19 precautions has two solid clues the webinar is past, and a bonus clue about who hosted the webinar.
Another example: The invitation Try out 3D Viewer might be more quickly and confidently digested by a second language speaker if it is written Try out the 3D Viewer program, even though that’s longer, because it gives the reader two extra clues: 3D Viewer is a software program, and its name is a proper noun.
Tip 5: Reduce the cost of reading—make it easy
In other words, consider the reader’s overall labor and time required, and make both as low as possible. Just because a person can theoretically understand your message doesn’t mean they will want to put forth the work or the minutes to do so.
Use use, not utilize. Use because, not due to the fact that. Use about, not with regard to.
The above guidelines and more are discussed in greater detail on the Do’s & Don’ts page of GlobalEnglishContent.com.
In the end, all the guidelines can be boiled down to one point: Even if your message is complicated, it doesn’t mean your words have to be.