Lingua america

The other day, we lobbed a tiny bombshell at for a localization policy that flubs the details: The Japanese subsite is listed under As we described before, the approach is “We’ll work in your language, but only if you ask us in English first.”

What put the bee in our bonnet? If you set up a language indicator in anything but the target language, you’re not really serving that target audience. You’re scaring off the source audience, warning them of trouble ahead. We learned this from famed graphic-design blowhard Erik Spiekermann, whose firm, MetaDesign, redesigned a newspaper’s television listings. Spanish-language programs were denoted by S for Spanish. But “Spanish” in Spanish is español, which starts with E.

So if you mark a program with S, you’re warning anglophones away from the program. (“No way, man. It’s in Spanish.”) Mark it with E and you’re advertising it to espanophones.

Quickie guerrilla testing

So are we being hard on REI? Oh, a little. And we admit, it’s merely a detail.

But how are other sites handling the deceptively simple issue of language selection?

We covered the topic a few times before (first; second; third). So we did a quickie guerrilla usability analysis, rather like our small coterie of other quick hits.


  1. With a browser explicitly set to English defaults, with which language does the site greet us?
  2. How do we switch languages? Is it near the top or the bottom of the page (above or below the fold)?
  3. Once we switch languages, what residual words remain in other languages?

We looked at just a few candidate industries, like retailing and computers. The test was more or less realistic: Some surfers would not bother to set their browser language to something other than English, and we looked specifically at sites in multilingual nations. (Within reason. Do we expect Finnish corporate sites to provide Swedish or Sami content for those language minorities? How about the Chinese in Canada, which, actually, we could find a few examples of?)

The .com sites we explored are putatively international. Putatively.

  1. Wal-Mart, with stores in nine countries: English only, period
  2. L.L. Bean:
  3. Amazon
  4. Dell
    1. Canada
      • Canadian flag in upper left corner alongside (baseline-shifted up half a line). Greets in English
      • Screams “Welcome to Dell [tacky rotated red maple leaf]” near screen top, just above a choose-a-country pull-down menu. (The use of a Canadian flag is an American’s idea of internationalization, cognate with the practice of littering TV shows and movies shot in Canada with American mailboxes. In either case, it sticks out like a sore thumb.) Canada is preselected on the pull-down menu. Below it is the word “English” (underlined, but not a link) and French (sic – not Français, and it’s a link, but not underlined)
      • French page is completely in French, up to and including the link back to English, which, of course, is given as Anglais. (Now “Français” is underlined, but it’s not a link, either.) Same flag and in upper left corner, but without a baseline shift
    2. Belgium
      • Greets in Dutch. Same format as Canadian site, with flag in upper left and, in this case, baseline-shifted upward
      • Country and language selectors in same spots as Canadian site. French is given as Français
      • French page is wholly in French. Flag legend in upper left now becomes In other words, Dutch is the default language, and French is something unusual
    3. Switzerland
      • Greets in German. in banner
      • Now-familiar country and language selectors. French and English on offer. (English? Why not Italian?)
      • French and English pages wholly in those languages. They give the appearance of having less content than the German, but that merely reflects longer German sentences. French page places in header, English Again, German is the default and French and English are something unusual
  5. Ericsson
    1. Canada
      • Greets in English (and redirects you to a nation-specific URL, The greeting is bizarro – an image reading “Bienvenidos! Welcome! Bienvenue! This site will be serving all customers in Canada and the U.S. Update your bookmarks!” Apart from sounding like a Joel Grey number in Cabaret, why lead with Spanish? Why does the URL say /US-CA/ and not /MX-US-CA/?
      • No language selectors
      • English only
    2. Belgium
      • Greets with an oddball, blue-faded photo of a decidedly Dutch-looking man on a rocky outcropping fingering a mobile phone. Words are overlaid: “Nederlands/Français/English”
      • The entire compact page is a language selector, with additional text links under the photo
      • Dutch, French and English pages are a mishmash of target language and English product names and categories (along with “Newsroom” in all cases). It’s a rather Japanese-trendy or Eurotrash feel, where English loanwords are carpet-bombed for prestige value. (There aren’t Dutch and French translations for “network operations and service providers”?)
    3. Switzerland: Greets in English. Some German content in central window. No language selector. There is no subpage. Only a handful of words in German. Easily the most bizarre and anomalous “multilingual” site tested
  6. Apple
    1. Canada
      • Greets in English
      • French link at very bottom
      • French page entirely in French, but it doesn’t match the English: The centrepiece is different, and the what’s-new section is blank
    2. Belgium
      • Greets in Dutch
      • Pull-down menu as language selector. Default setting is, of all things, “Apple”
      • Dutch page entirely in Dutch (except for page footer, oddly). French pagewholly in French, with footer in English save for one word
    3. Switzerland
      • Greets bilingually, with a mangled, overlapping image of words asking you to select a language
      • Bilingual pull-down menu whose default reads “Sprache/Langue”
      • German page is wholly in German (except for most of the page footer, yet again, and the page title: Since when do German-speakers call their country Switzerland?). French page is wholly Francized, with the same exceptions

Moral of the story

The right way to handle a multilingual site has been covered previously on the NUblog. For starters, read and respect the browser’s language settings. Permit language selection in the target languages right up at the top of the page. The resulting pages should be rendered wholly in that language.

Not very difficult. Tedious, and strewn with little details to mess up, but not difficult. Still, no one gets it entirely right. Some American retailers get it spectacularly wrong.

We like the Ericsson Belgium approach: We will not assume which language you want. (It’s the most conservative approach; the site should have read our language preference.) The house of cards falls down in inside pages. Dell’s translations are the most thorough: You never have to be reminded that the company is based in Austin, Texas. We still cannot figure out what was going on with the Apple page footers, which could never decide what language they were using.

Note that local subsidiaries of the same multinational never did the same thing. Even the Apple look and feel, which is supposedly standardized, falls down in details. It falls down in intelligent ways in some cases, as in Switzerland’s, which overrides Cupertino diktats in order to serve its bilingual populace.

Who’s at fault?

Whom do we blame for this? (Blame is necessary to improve the Internet.) Clueless unilingual managers; restrictive corporate-identity programs dreamed up by unilinguals; Web-design shops selling “strategy” and not content and flash (sometimes with a majuscule) rather than worldliness, sophistication, and literacy of many kinds.

Of course, the Internet is run by Americans, and, on the whole, Americans do not care about languages other than American. We are under no illusions that conditions will improve markedly. Not even Christmas cheer is enough to temper our experience here.

Further testing

We get a lot of readers here. Many of you work in big Web shops. You probably wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t agree with us half the time.

So do your own testing. Look at some of your fave multinationals. If your firm is or does work for such juggernauts, take a few minutes and surf the “international” sites. Even if you don’t understand the language, you’ll spot little mistakes in seconds. Your mission, then, will be to do something about them. Let us know how it goes.

Posted on 2000-12-18