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It’s still relatively rare to find websites where users can choose the language, and those that offer it tend to be from large, global, commercial organizations. Yet even for the few that offer this option still artificially reduce the world. In the US, you might see English and Spanish as options, despite a consumer base that can be famously international. In Belgium, retail websites typically offer two languages – Dutch and French – ignoring the country’s third official language (German) and the capital’s many expatriates who function largely in English.

When we build international web sites, even when we recognize that Europe is a place of many languages, our final product assumes that language follows political boundaries. That is, German in Germany, Spanish in Spain. That has never actually been the case, and it certainly isn’t now in an age of international mobility and instant communication.

Major cities of the US have always been famous melting pots. Today large employers in cities like Chicago can expect an employee base with at least three different mother tongues: English, Spanish and Polish. But there are also likely to be employees who speak Russian, Korean, and many others.

This is increasingly true in urban areas all over the world. So providing only English content for US sites and German content for sites in Germany is naïve and out of touch with working reality.

Providing for local language

When it comes to corporate internal communications, few internal channels provide for local language preferences.

I’m writing a book on localization and internal communications. From my research so far, I’ve found only a few multinational corporations that even attempt any amount of intranet content in local language. One reason it’s so rarely considered is the complexity of managing content across borders.

Creating internal news that people want to read is hard enough; doing it in every language, for every country that the company operates exponentially more so. That means providing individual employees with a language choice, regardless of location, has to be impossibly Herculean. We say global, but do we mean it?

Are there any companies that have accomplished an intranet where users can choose their own language?

More than ever, we expect global collaboration. But unless I’m missing something, our systems for localization aren’t even remotely preparing for it.

We need to change that. There will come a time when individual users expect all content to be in a language they prefer, regardless of their location. We should be looking ahead to a day when each market is offering intranet content in all relevant languages, including the Polish employee in Chicago or the Turkish speaker in Düsseldorf.

Most corporate intranets have a long way to go, and the process to managing such a content system would be complex to say the least. But technology seems tantalizingly close to making it possible. Can our localization programs anticipate that development? If we can accomplish this, we would be getting even more from our content and engaging our employees on much deeper levels.

I hope to learn more at LocWorld34 in Barcelona this June. Please let me know of any pioneers who you believe are making this happen.