Multiple language intranets

by | Apr 29, 2011 | Intranets

I recently had the opportunity to take part in an excellent Intranet Benchmarking Forum Special Interest Group webinar on multiple language intranets.  In the 1980s I was running the European Market Research Centre for International Data Corporation, and this involved regular discussions and meetings with staff and clients in over a dozen European countries and I became very aware of the benefits and problems arising from the use of ‘corporate English’.  As an intranet consultant I have worked on many intranets with content in multiple languages, one of which used nine languages, several six, and one English/Arabic intranet which was an especial challenge.  I have also worked on intranets that in theory only permitted content to be pubished in corporate English but in reality various countries had set up their own national language intranets (and blogs) and hidden them from corporate HQ!

The language we use defines our national identity and culture.  In the UK most of the people living in Wales can speak English but all public-sector websites that contain information relevant to Wales have to be in English and Welsh.  Certainly English is a very useful default language, and it is fairly easy to work with around 850 words. The other 1 million are just there to confuse everyone, including many native speakers.  One of the issues I come across quite frequently is that intranet managers are not aware of the significance of the level of understanding of English. In the USA there is a five-level categorisation of language skills and a six-level categorisation in the European Union.  As part of the governance framework for a multiple-language intranet one or other of these categorisations should be used to define the level of competance required by intranet users.

What these categories take account of is that the variation in skills and experience needed to read, write, speak and understand speech are different.   Someone might be able to read English fairly fluently, speak it to a limited extent, just about get the sense of what someone is saying in English at normal conversational speeds and  have great difficulty writing in English.  This might well be a significant problem with social media where the language can be highly conversational, and writing even something as short as a blog entry in English could be a substantial challenge to a non-native speaker.

When working with multiple language intranets I am also often surprised to find that no one is really sure who made the original decision on the number of languages, and there is no mechanism for assessing the need to drop or add a language based on user research.  Much often depends on the influence of a country manager.

Intranet managers working for companies operating in countries which do not have a common native English language workforce  should be very aware of the issues that could arise, and which may in fact be beneath the surface because of the potential difficulty of challenging the use of “corporate English”.

Martin White