Saturday, January 31, 2009

Do our internationally accessed government sites speak the right language?

Comscore's media release last week indicated that Global Internet Audience Surpasses 1 billion Visitors, According to comScore.

While this is probably an understatement, as it only accounts for those aged 15+, the release highlighted the increasing diversity of internet users, with China very clearly in the top spot with 179,100,000 users, compared to the 2nd placed US's 163,300,000 users.

Australia didn't even make the top 15 list, with the Netherlands scraping in at 15th spot with 11,812,000 users.

It is immediately clear than people with English as their first language are a minority on the internet.

Looking at the top 15 countries, the only ones with English as an official language were the US, UK and Canada (which has French as well). These countries only accounted for 221,173,000 of a total 711,488,000 internet users.

Extending this out to the full 1 billion internet users, only around 31% of internet users are likely to have English as their first language.

This means that for internationally focused government websites there is an enormous need to consider two options:

Rewriting websites to use extremely simple language and navigation for people who have English as a second language (or even as their first!) This is possibly the greatest need for most government websites - speaking to someone at a party last week, although they lecture at an Australian university, English is their second language and some government-speak in websites does not make sense to them.

The other, and harder, option is to co-publish in other languages, such as (written) Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, French, Hindi, Russian, Korean and Italian (by rough order of prominence).

Yes there's a cost to both of these approaches. However are you willing to tell your Minister that your internationally focused website is only accessible to 31% of its prospective audience in its current form - and you're OK with that?

Fortunately our tourism industry has gotten this message, Australia's official (government) tourist entry point is available in eight languages and with localised content for more than 18 countries.

But what about people seeking business ties in Australia, those wanting to register their IP, anyone with a need to understand local laws or to claim benefits?

Over in Europe it is common practice to publish government and commercial websites in multiple languages - they are part of a European community as well as a global one.

How connected is Australia to our global community? Perhaps the languages we use on our websites indicate that we're not as connected as we could be - and one can only wonder at the value of this lost economic activity to Australia.

This is a whole-of-government issue, so perhaps we need a whole-of-government solution. A central team that works with agencies on a prioritisation basis (by economic impact) to convert their material into other languages - centrally budgeted of course.

Or should we rely on the audience to seek their own translators - either machine-based online ones, their employees, friends and families (with potential limited english understanding) or even paid services?

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