High demand for unofficial language

International English under the microscope

Walk into any supermarket to buy carrots and you have a decision to make: do you buy those bunched with leaves, the rough and ready ‘wonky’ type, cleaned and packaged, or baby carrots? It may surprise you to know that baby carrot is a misleading term. Most of these delicate little carrots aren’t plucked from the ground prematurely, they’re simply sculpted from larger, rougher carrots and sold under a different name. ‘Invented’ in the 1980s by Californian farmer, Mike Yurosek, the original aim was to tackle waste and sell more carrots. Today, baby carrots dominate the industry and made up over 54 % of all carrot sales in 2020. Impressive for a product that didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

In a similar vein, international English doesn’t technically exist as an official language variant. But it’s in high demand.

What is international English?

It’s used to refer to English that would be appropriate for an international audience without being culturally bound to a particular English-speaking group. As a British person, I’ll naturally write and translate into British English, but should your corporate style be US-English spelling, I can switch to that. It’s the same as European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese, they differ and the difference is critical if you’re selling to one particular market. But if you want to sell to both audiences, you need to find some common ground.

International English is that common ground for the English language. Over 1.35 billion people worldwide speak English and only about 360 million of those are native speakers. A greater proportion speak it as a second language. This includes those who use English as a business language or choose English for preference out of the languages available on a website – but who aren’t native speakers. 

Who is your reader?

If you’re exporting your products and services and want English translation, you probably want to use English to communicate with international clients rather than ‘just’ those in Australia or the US or Great Britain. Perhaps for business partners in China, Latin America and across Europe, people with wildly different cultures and frames of reference. Your English translation needs to be accurate and consistent in its chosen spelling and grammar but accessible to the broadest possible audience.

A key aspect of international English is that it is written to avoid any specific cultural references that would be relevant to a small section of the target audience.

Why you need to avoid cultural references

You may be talking about autumn in October while your southern hemisphere readers are enjoying spring. The relevant associations you’re making in your text won’t land in the same way and your message becomes less compelling.

Let’s say you include a football metaphor in your text. A British reader will understand the intended context and envisage a match between teams such as Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspurs (other teams are available). This game in the US would be called soccer because football refers to American football, an entirely different game involving heavy padding and helmets for protection. Which is called Gridiron locally in Australia. Throw non-native English readers into the mix and a throwaway reference in your text becomes a cultural minefield. 

If you’re writing for an international audience, the references you use are just as important as the language. Especially if you want your reader to focus on your message and not be distracted by an unintentional ambiguity.

Website visitors may click away, customers might not follow your instructions, business partners may not grasp the finer details of your offer. 

Simple is always best so make language work harder for you without involving idioms, complex word play, or specific cultural references to practices that would baffle a tourist.

Doesn’t that make it boring?

Accessibility to a wider audience doesn’t have to mean a text becomes boring, stripped of its clever comparisons and only straightforward information left behind. It just means you and your translator need to work smarter. 

Instead of referencing the Pfand deposit system, talk about recycling in general. Instead of a football metaphor, you could talk about bikes or a sports concept common to everyone. If your goal is more international interest in your work, keep these readers in mind as you write and your efforts are sure to hit the back of the net… er, score a home run… um, a hole in one.

Or write whatever you like and send your text to me to revise and adapt where appropriate.

Searching a globe with a magnifying glass
Searching for that elusive lingua franca