Friday, June 21, 2024

Speak English Will Ya?

I know a nice retired couple that used to like foreign travel and used to take yearly trips abroad and used to regularly broaden their horizons and expand their experience through cruises, tours and vacations. I say *used to* because they quit traveling after a trip to Portugal where they got very frustrated because, “Those people don’t speak English!”

It’s a peculiarly American arrogance that we *expect* others to speak our language, but we don’t feel the need to even attempt theirs. The same affliction seems to extend to email communication among major U.S. corporations when they receive foreign language email communications.

A recent survey conducted by found that large U.S. companies, including Disney, IBM and Microsoft have “inadequate translation capabilities”. Now there’s no doubt that, a translation service, has an interest in the outcome of such a survey, but we’ll take their word for it that 50% of U.S. companies don’t even answer emails written in a foreign language. Those that do reply seem to take way too long to respond and sometimes answer in the wrong language!

Now I recall those trips to Tokyo and Mexico City where the kind folks in the hotels and restaurants all seemed to speak English to me when they saw I didn’t know their tongue. But we don’t have the same luxury when it comes to our web sites and email. If a Portugese visitor comes to WebSite101, they will find a machine translation option at the top of the page so that they can get the gist of what the site is all about by choosing their own language from the WorldLingo menu options.

I am a guest expert on small business ecommerce at where I recently received a question in Portugese that to my untrained and uneducated eye appeared to be Spanish, so I did what many do, I went to BabelFish machine translation service at and entered the text into the form, chose “Spanish to English” and got gibberish in response! Well, I had heard that Portugese resembles Spanish, so I tried *that* option and got an understandable sentence from the service.

I have to admit that I didn’t respond to that question in the same way I do most, because I can’t entirely trust the machine translation and wouldn’t want to give an incorrect answer. I requested a clarification, translated by machine to Portugese from English. Now, short of learning most of the worlds’ major languages, how would a respectable ebusiness deal with questions in a language they don’t know?

According to the WorldLingo report offered on their web site: one company responded with the following:

“I am in receipt of your e-mail. To forward this to an outside service for interpretation would take several days, and not allow us to respond to you in the quickest manner. Can you re-submit your inquiry in English?” This assumes that the person that sent the email can speak English! Why would they be expected to know English? There’s that peculiar arrogance again!

My wife went to Paris a couple of years ago and found that if she struggled with her bad French that they had *much* more patience with her than if she just expected them to switch to English for her benefit. Perhaps that reputation that the French have for disliking Americans is because those Americans have that arrogant expectation that the French speak English!

As ebusiness expands, the English speaking world should expect that they will be dealing with customers who don’t speak English and that the potential loss of business could be dramatic if they don’t find a way to address the needs of those potential customers. Email translation service is available from several sources as well, including

We could be arrogant about English or we could deal with it by providing machine translation from our web sites. Some businesses may find that it is worth their while to have web pages translated by a human and posted in other languages for the benefit of regular foreign customers.

Think about your potential audience and consider the possibility of really going global, not just reaching the English-speaking customers in foreign countries, but everyone who might buy your product or service and can access your web site.

Mike Banks Valentine operates SEOptimism, Offering SEO training of
in-house content managers
as well as the Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial at and blogs about SEO at
where this article appears with live links to SMO stories, buttons, blog posts and examples.

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