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On Thursday July 29, 2004 General Manager Shelly Orr Priebe served as a panelist at a quarterly forum sponsored by The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). The forum brought Workforce Boards and Adult Education and training partners together to develop stronger services to address the challenge of serving adults and youth with limited English proficiency. Marketing and Localization Manager Lisa Siciliani researched and compiled this valuable information in preparation.

The U.S. is more multilingual than it has been in 70 years.

Lisa Siciliani photoNearly 1-in-5 people, or 47 million U.S. residents age 5 and older, spoke a language other than English at home in 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau said today. That was an increase of 15 million people since 1990. The report, Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000 [PDF], said only 55% of the people who spoke a language other than English at home also reported they spoke English “very well.” According to the report, Spanish speakers increased from 17.3 million in 1990 to 28.1 million in 2000, a 62% rise. Just over half the Spanish speakers reported speaking English “very well.”

The report found that more than 9-in-10 people age 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home in Laredo, Texas, the second highest such proportion among U.S. places of 100,000 population or more. The 10 places with the highest proportions included four in Texas.

In seven Texas counties, more than 80% of the population spoke a non-English language—Maverick, Webb, Starr, Kenedy, Zavala, Presidio and Hidalgo.

Language and cultural issues are critical to successfully reaching your print audience and in Texas the majority of those classified as non-English speaking at home read and speak Spanish. Therefore, we are focusing primarily on the issues of this large Hispanic population, which originates from many different cultures.

When writing to non-native English readers, consider both the culture and English language skills of your target audience. Remember, what you write will either be read in English by a person for whom English is a foreign language or it will be translated. Language, style, spelling, grammar and idiomatic content are all important. The following are writing guidelines rather than absolutes, as there are many exceptions depending upon the type and purpose of content and the audience to whom you are writing. First, let’s discuss style.

Keep your sentences short and simple in structure.

Sentence Length

Single sentences with fifty or more words and several sub clauses are more likely to be misunderstood, especially by a non-native English reader. They are just too complex. It is also more difficult to translate one long sentence than three short ones. However, clear and economical writing does not preclude using a variety of sentence lengths. Sentence variety energizes your words and creates a natural flow, whether written for a non-native English reader or translated. Tip: When writing for this audience, sentences should contain one idea. One sentence—one idea.


If you get the tense of a verb wrong, what you write may make no sense at all. Of course, a native English reader will probably guess what you really mean but others may not. Grammar, strictly defined, is a comparatively narrow field. Most questions native readers have about a language deal not with grammar but with usage or style. This is one of the fallibilities of the grammar checkers. As English professor, Jack Lynch, described them, “They not only miss most of the serious problems, they actually give wretched advice, often telling you to fix something that’s not broken. And of course they have no sense of grace, which means they can only apply rules pedantically with no sense of context.” Tip: Have your content reviewed by an editor and provide information about the purpose of the content and your intended audience.

Sentence Structure

Try to avoid complex linguistic structures and be cautious about the use of negative phrases which can be misunderstood. A double negative written correctly in English may be challenging to translate. In some languages this construct does not even exist. Whether it is written for translation or to be read by someone with limited English language skills, meaning may be lost. Example: “It is not unpleasant” is grammatically correct and is a weaker statement than “It is pleasant.” It means “It is neutral or pleasant,” but it is often used as understatement for “It is quite pleasant.” Tip: Reread what you have written multiple times, each time focusing only on one or two items, such as run-on sentences or idea clarity. This method of review enables the writer to find overlooked weaknesses.


An idiom which your reader does not understand will certainly confuse and may mislead. If you must use idioms, make sure that you use them correctly. People commonly say “I could care less” when what they mean is the exact opposite. There are many common English idioms that are easily understood by native speakers, but potentially confusing to a non-native reader or to a translator. For example, the term “pick up” can mean: 1) come to meet an escort, 2) lift with hands or fingers or 3) learn casually. Context, which is crucial, may suffice to allow a clear translation, but may not be enough for a non-native English reader. Tip: Idiom refers to dialect, manner or style. Slang is the language peculiar to a particular group and may be idiomatic. Slang is easier to recognize than idiom. There are lists of idiomatic U.S. English online and a review of these will benefit the clarity of your content.


Spelling is simple. It must be correct. There is a body of opinion that says that you should not worry too much about spelling. After all, it is what you say that matters, not whether you know how to spell every word that you use, right? Not in this case. When you are writing to people for whom English is a second language, correct spelling is vital. If you are lucky, context will resolve a misspelling issue. If not, it may cause misunderstanding for a non-native English reader or translator. Tip: After you run a spell checker on your content, ask a proofer to check for typos that are not misspellings.

Word Choice

Closely related to spelling are word substitution errors. Consider the following word pairs or triplets: affect & effect, insure, assure & ensure, inquire & enquire, all together & altogether and anyone & any one. Many people write one of these terms when they mean another. Be sure that you know what you are writing, especially if the context might permit confusion. Tip: This is one area in which grammar checkers are often helpful, however, only in an advisory manner. If you provide enough context and clear detail these types of errors will be easily discovered upon review by a human editor or proofer.

Language Expansion

In general, a Spanish document will be twenty percent longer than its English counterpart. Many grammatical reasons explain this “expansion” factor. Among them, Spanish translators sometimes use two, three or even more words to translate a single English compound word.

A Few Tips To Help You Prepare For Text Expansion

Very small text or text within graphics can be especially challenging to translate while retaining original format, especially where there is considerable text expansion. There are a few simple steps that can improve the process and the final results while minimizing the cost.

1) Keep, organize and label well all original graphics files associated with your project. This means keep the files from the original program they were created in, not just the file type to which they were exported. For instance, a Photoshop file is an original file. The .jpeg it was exported to is not. The original file is editable, meaning translated text is substituted IN the file rather than a workaround having to be created. Label them logically and descriptively so that someone looking for a particular graphics file can readily find it in a folder containing many graphics files. Organize them, such as placing them together in a folder named “Source Graphics Files.” Tip: If the original graphics file is named “Large Logo.ppd,” then name the file it is exported to “Large Logo.gif.” No time is wasted matching up source or original files with the desired file type.

2) Allow space for text expansion. Review your content and image how it would change if the text was 20% or more larger. This is more critical the smaller the amount of text. Over the space of a page of text, there will be some terms that are shorter, some that are longer and it averages out to be about 20% for English to Spanish. However, a single term may vary tremendously, potentially expanding from a five-letter word to a total of 21 letters. Think of labels, headings, table cells, navigation buttons and other situations where that amount of expansion would cause havoc in your layout.

3) Be cautious about using small font size, particularly where there is little white space into which the translation can expand. If the font size must be reduced in the translation in order to fit text and the original text is already quite small, the translation may be rendered unreadable. This can occur in any text, but is most commonly found in captions, footnotes, tables, textboxes, inserts and product labels and directions.

Say it in Spanish

Research shows that simply providing content in both English and Spanish is the most fundamental effort to make if your goal is to provide information to the whole Hispanic audience. Depending upon the type of content, you may elect to use one version of Spanish, crafting it to be as culturally neutral as possible. For most content, this is sufficient even if the translation contains some terms that are not used by all Spanish readers. Various regions of the U.S. have Hispanic populations that are predominantly from different countries, such as Mexico, Cuba or Puerto Rico. And it is important to note that Spanish used in the U.S. varies from that which is used in Spanish-speaking countries. When should you use one Spanish version and when it is preferable to tailor it to the readers’ country of origin? Keep in mind that it is not only language that differs, but interests and cultural activities inherent in a region vary. For example, soccer is very popular in Mexico, Central and South America, whereas baseball is the most widely followed sport in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Text and graphics may be reviewed for opportunities to either specifically tailor them or make them more inclusive.

More About Spanish Dialects

Over a long history and vast global influence, Spanish has naturally evolved into many local variations or dialects. This provides both opportunities and challenges for those communicating in Spanish to Hispanics within the U.S. The opportunity is the ability to communicate to people from 22 countries in a single language. The challenge is doing it with so many different idiomatic expressions. Can diverse Spanish speakers understand one another’s vernacular?

Yes, you can produce documents that will be understood by all Spanish audiences. Spanish readers will usually understand the idiomatic differences of another region because of the common Spanish language foundation they share, even as common terms vary by region or have evolved to hold different meanings. See the following online example: “A computer book written in Spain refers to a computer as “ordenador.” In most of Latin America, a computer is a “computadora.” Will the Latin American understand the word “ordenador”? Of course! Will he/she realize that a Spaniard wrote it? Absolutely! In a technical book or manual, this makes no difference; however, an advertising piece or a personalized message directed at the reader might be affected.”

Spanish readers expect that many types of content created for Hispanics in the U.S. must be crafted in a single version, such as a website or a user manual, and tend to be tolerant of the occasional term uncommon in their own dialect. Tailoring the content to a specific country of origin is suggested for certain legal, financial and health care situations, and to maximize the impact of a local marketing/advertising effort.

Content created for print use may also be used online. Internet use is increasing at a greater rate among U.S. Hispanics than the population as a whole. Because there is so little Spanish content available online, reach is very high for Spanish content. Spanish content accounts for only about 3% of all content online, whereas Spanish is the third most used language in the universe. If possible, offer Spanish-language support, such as Spanish-speaking customer service representatives or a Spanish call center, etc.

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