What is the most widely spoken language? I sometimes ask people around me.
The answers I usually get are English, Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. Mandarin is indeed the language which most people have as their mother tongue, but few others speak it.
But the world’s most used language is Bad English!
Working in a very big and international company, I get reminded every day that most people who speak English use it as a second or third language. Almost everybody have an accent (sometimes amusing), a limited vocabulary and poor grammar.
While my initial question is phrased as a joke and the accents can put a smile on your face, the implications are serious for anyone communicating internationally: The majority of your target audience will have difficulties understanding your message if you don’t use simple and straight language.
Use simple and straight words instead of fancy ones or words with double meanings. Avoid nested or complicated sentences. Watch out for slang and local expressions (I could have used “idiomatic expressions” but chose not to). Oh yes, dates of course: Skip all those 05/12/2011, 12/05/2011 and 2011-05-12. Write “12 May 2012” instead! It cannot be misinterpreted.
When it comes to using too complicated words, I suspect that people like me are the worst sinners. People who have English as a second language but who are good at it and are tempted to show off. Reflect back on one of the fundamental rules of good communication – Write for them, not for yourself.
A related, but different, mistake people sometimes make is to refer to contexts that are not known to others; sports events, TV shows, stores, commercials, some holidays and habits. The text may get a little bit less colourful but if your intention is to maximize understanding, literary brilliance is only a nice to have. If a more colourful text may increase the effect of your message, as in advertising, consider having different versions for markets where English is native and for the rest of us.
Maybe we should go even further? Sometimes there are possibilities to select: English (UK), English (US) etc. Why not add an “English (Int)” or “Simplified English”?
Or should I rewrite it?