Learning languages online

As if I needed another distraction, this week I discovered Busuu.com. It calls itself a ‘language learning community’ and is basically another social network with a twist: you create a profile for yourself and add details of the languages you’re learning.

Busuu.com offers courses in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian at the moment. As well as providing units in vocabulary and grammar, it also prompts you to submit a short writing exercise that other members can then check and correct.

Improved site tools and features

This is a great little tool for language learners and much better than anything else I’ve found online so far. I’m not sure how old the website is, but I’m guessing it will of course be further developed.

A few things that I’d like to see are:

an improved search tool that lets users search using a keyword — I’d like to make ‘friends’ with people in my locality, not just my country downloads (PDFs and podcasts) with more detail and exercises than just those found in that unit — these …

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Book: ‘Biting the wax tadpole’

I decided some time ago that I’d share some of the interesting writing- and language-related books that I read. Unfortunately, I’m very good at starting lots of books at the same time, but not always great at finishing them…

One I did complete a while ago (and, yes, I should have written about it while fresh in my mind) was Biting the wax tadpole (Penguin, 2008) by Elizabeth Little, a self-proclaimed ‘armchair linguist’. This book was a very readable, light-hearted and interesting foray into linguistics for a beginner such as myself.

The one area that stood out in my mind, in comparison with similar books, was an in-depth chapter on the origin and meaning of numbers, i.e. how they’ve been expressed through the ages and why. This topic seems to be neglected in many other books on language.

Aside from discussing the many different ways that cultures do this, Liz (we’re all friends here!) makes a small point about how similar the number ‘nine’ is to the word for ‘new’ (in Indo-European languages). She suggests that we haven’t always used …

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Learn a language, help your writing, improve your prospects

The Guardian recently reported that “there is increasing demand around the world for [website] translations into English…particularly inside businesses”.

This is an interesting and exciting prospect for me, as a web copywriter living in Spain, learning Spanish and hoping to gain clients here.

Increase credibility and improve search results

As well as needing help translating content into English in the first place, many companies have websites with English (‘the language of business’) pages that, while understandable, could be better.

I already offer help in this area, and have rewritten the English pages for a local Spanish web agency. It recognised that to attract the substantial English businesses in our locality, well-written web pages provided credibility and would help it to appear in relevant search results.

Write appropriately for your readership

But learning a language doesn’t just mean adding another service to your offering; it can help to make you a better writer. John Clifford, Quality Manager at corporate web agency Investis, has a diploma in French translation from the …

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Simple, clear copy (in any language)

One of the first rules of web copywriting is to use plain English, to give every reader the best chance of understanding your content. Your website is available to the entire world and will have visitors who have a first language different to your own. Don’t forget, however, that native speakers also have differing reading and writing abilities.

Writing in a simple, clear style benefits all users; it makes your website easier to read and understand (communicating your messages more effectively). Concise copy fulfils accessibility requirements for both people and search engines, making your website also easier to find.

Reading ability will vary within your own audience

The W3C’s WCAG 2.0 has a reading level criterion that says if the ‘text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level’, a version that is not more advanced should also available.

This caters for ‘people with reading disabilities [which may include highly educated members of the intended audience] while also allowing authors to publish difficult or complex web content’.

Consider users …

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‘Thoughtful, investigative pieces don’t work on the web’

An interesting article on the Guardian’s website today. Aida Edemariam looks at the issue of search on the internet and how this influences online writing in contrast to offline articles.

This, of course, links in to how content for the web must be structured differently in general. Unfortunately, she thinks it makes ‘depressing reading’, interpreting it as meaning that ‘long, thoughtful, investigative pieces don’t work [on the web]’.

‘Write great content’

She quotes Paul Roach, the Guardian’s head of SEO, who says that for successful search results, ‘you just have to write great content’. Good advice. She then refers to the following advice from Jakob Nielsen:

“Stick to simple presentation formats in all ways: a logical progression of the story, mainly active sentences, simple words, short sentences, and a plain, scrolling page. Also, keep people looking down the page by scattering attractive elements throughout the page in the form of subheads and bulleted lists.”

Edemariam concludes that: ‘Short pieces work. Lists work even better. Long, thoughtful, …

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British English or American English?

Jakob Nielsen recently covered the issue of which English language variant to use in one of his recent Alertbox emails. This topic usually interests me or bugs me in equal measure (but for different reasons).

I’ve written for companies that want to use British English and for those that prefer American English. As Nielsen points out, it’s not just a case of changing the spellings. It’s about terminology and more. He provides some useful tips, as well as guidance on which version to use.

As ever, it boils down to your website’s target audience, which is your first consideration in any type of communication. However, your choice is also influenced to some extent by how you want to portray yourself or your company. That is, as an international business or a regional one.

Nielsen also explains how using the incorrect version can alienate the people you’re trying to speak to. As he says, ‘language matters’. Visitors will make assumptions about a company or product based on the variant used.

Finally, he says to …

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