Examples of language changes in websites


One of the proposed guidelines in version 2 of the Web Content Accessibillity Guidelines is: "Language of content can be programmatically determined". A suggested success criteria to meet this guideline is "passages or fragments of text occurring within the content that are written in a language other than the primary natural language of the content as a whole, are identified, including specification of the language of the passage or fragment. "

This article focuses on some real world examples of the need for the identification of language changes in websites. For this article, Dutch websites are used because of the large influence of foreign languages on the Dutch day to day language.

English words in Dutch: a cultural phenomenon

Dutch is the native tongue of approximately 20 million people worldwide. It's the official language of the Netherlands and one of the official languages of Belgium. Both countries are very internationally orientated. In the Netherlands, English is taught in primary school from the age of 10. By the time Dutch children finish secondary education, most speak three foreign languages including English.

Many TV programs in the Netherlands and Belgium are foreign, mostly from the US. The programs are subtitled, not dubbed, which exposes the public to a lot of foreign phrases. In every day speech a lot of English phrases or words are used, particulary amongst teenagers.

Also, a lot of the academic literature used in the Netherlands and Belgium is written in English. This means a lot of scientific domains use English terminology. Even if Dutch words exist, many researchers use the English words either because they are more common or to come across as internationally orientated or well informed.

Example 1: Unox commercial

Unox is a Dutch brand which sells traditional foods. One Unox commercial shows a manager talking on his mobile phone while filling his tray in a corporate cafeteria. Although he is Dutch, he uses almost all English words, or Dutch versions of English words. The lady behind the counter looks at him with a vacant, pityful look. The only real Dutch sentence he utters is when he asks for a cup of pea soup (a traditional Dutch soup). The message is clear: Unox will be Unox.

Example 2: buzzword bingo

What to do during a boring lecture in management studies? Dutch students have a solution. Each person fills in a bingo form, for example a 5x5 grid. In every cell you write down a managerial term, typically an English word or phrase. For example: "outsourcing", "management by walking around", "commitment", "tackle", "just in time", "business process redesign" etc. Each time a word is used during the (Dutch!) lecture, you mark the word on your card. The first person to mark an entire row or column is the winner.

Real world examples in websites

Selection criteria

To illustrate the need for the identification of language changes in pages, three typical examples of the use of foreign words in Dutch websites have been selected. These pages have the following in common:

Example 1: Shell

Screenshot of Shell website, with highlighted section that features English text

URL: http://www.shell.nl

The first example is the Dutch division of Shell.

English words on the Shell homepage:

On first glance, there do not seem to be a lot of English words. Most of the navigation items are in Dutch. However, most of the page's additional links (Home, sitemap, disclaimer, copyright) are in English. This is very common in Dutch websites. The Dutch translations of these words either don't exist or are used very rarely.

Besides these common links, some phrases in the text are in English as well ("global motorsport site", "diversity award"). Another Dutch phenomenon can be seen here, the hybrid word "cadeaushoppen" where a Dutch word is glued to an English word, apparently to make it sound more dynamic.

In the HTML of this page, the main language of the page is indicated as Dutch. None of the English words or phrases are marked as such.

I don't think this page will cause great problems for people using speech synthesizers. The English words that are used are either very common, or are not essential for the use of the page.

Example 2: Dell support

Screenshot of Dell support website with highlighted Quick links menu

URL: http://support.euro.dell.com/nl/nl/home.asp, or http://www.dell.nl and then "Ondersteuning"

The next example is the Customer support section of the Dutch division of the computer company Dell.

English words or phrases in the Dell website:

Most of these are main navigation items. Understanding of the meaning of the words is crucial to be able to use the links to navigate the website. If these words are pronounced with a Dutch pronounciation, they become very hard if not impossible to understand.

Dell uses English words even when perfectly good Dutch alternatives exist. To me personally, the use of English comes across as excessive and unnecessary. Most of the English phrases can not be found in a Dutch dictionary.

The HTML of the page does not identify what language is used whatsoever.

Example 3: Logica/CMG

Screenshot of Logica-CMG homepage with higlighted navigation with lots of English terms

URL: http://www.logicacmg.nl

Logica-CMG is a Dutch IT company. People playing buzzword bingo would have a great time visiting this site for new inspiration.

English words on the LogicaCMG homepage:

This has to be as bad as it gets. This page is almost a complete mix of Dutch and English. Of the 10 main navigation items, 7 are in English. English phrases are mainly used as eyecatchers, for example the navigation items, headings and the slogan. Since it's not so much words as entire phrases that are in English, almost none of these can be found in the Dutch dictionary. When pronounced with a Dutch pronounciation, a large part of the page becomes hard to understand.

The language(s) of the page is not identified in the HTML.


We have seen three examples of the use of English words and phrases in Dutch websites. The Shell example is what you will find on most Dutch websites: most of the website is in Dutch but some English words are used. More and more of these words get incorporated into the Dutch dictionaries. This means that at least in theory, they will not have to be marked up as English to be pronounced correctly by speech synthesizers, since they are then part of the Dutch language. Even when pronounced with the Dutch pronounciation, these small words such as "home", "sitemap", etc. are so common in websites that most people will understand them anyway.

The most difficult problems arise when entire English phrases are used in websites. This is a growing trend in the Netherlands, particularly in dynamic, internationally oriented areas such as information technology. Most phrases used in the CMG example are English and will never be incorporated into the Dutch language. Since these phrases tend to be used in important places such as navigation and headings, understanding these phrases is crucial to understanding the page. Because most of these phrases contain several words, it becomes very hard to derive their meaning from the context. A large section of the website will be mispronounced if these phrases are not marked as English.

I hope these examples will be helpful for formulating international guidelines for web accessibility. These examples are meant to show the accessibility problems that can occur when a lot of foreign words and phrases are used, as is the case in a growing number of websites in the Netherlands.


© Yvette Hoitink, December 2003

E-mail: y.p.hoitink@heritas.nl
CEO Heritas, Enschede, The Netherlands

Written for the WCAG workgroup of the W3C.