Writing for an international audience

Dinorah Imrie
Tuesday 12 December 2023

If you are a native English speaker, have you wondered what it’s like to read web pages written in English when English is not your first language?

Our University web pages have an international audience made up of native and non-native English speakers. This means that the process of writing content for them must consider the challenges they may face when reading in English.

Group of graduates from the University of St Andrews wearing their national dress

Multiple factors have an impact on how easy or difficult it is to understand a text in English. I’ll focus on these three:

  • Cultural background
  • Thinking process
  • Reading speed

Cultural background

You may be reading this sentence as a native English speaker, but you may also be a non-native English speaker. Now, think of a subject that you know nothing about and imagine that you are reading an academic paper about that subject. Being familiar with the language itself does not guarantee you’ll be able to fully understand the paper. I can read in English but I’m sure I would have trouble understanding texts about dark matter.

It’s not only subject familiarity that helps us understand what we read, cultural background influences reading comprehension too. A study of a group of 45 Iranian learners who were either studying English language translation or preparing to become English tutors concluded that cultural background and familiarity with a subject can determine how easy or difficult a text will be for its readers. The Flesch-Kincaid reading ease scale was used to develop the tests and indicate how difficult a passage would be to understand in English. The participants were presented with tests that included culturally familiar and culturally unfamiliar content.

When we write about a topic that we know very well, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same cultural background or familiarity with it. This is when it’s helpful to take a step back and consider our audience.

Thinking process

For a long time it was assumed that because humans all shared the same brain anatomy, the processes that govern our thoughts were the same. This assumption was challenged by the research of Professor Richard E Nisbett from the University of Michigan.

“The difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” When a Chinese student said this to Professor Nisbett, he was encouraged to research the differences in the thinking process of ‘Westerners’ and ‘East Asians’. I’m not a big fan of the labels as they seem like generalisations, but I also understand these labels were necessary to easily identify the groups in his research.

In Nisbett’s book, ‘The Geography of Thought’, he describes a test that is now known as the ‘Michigan fish test’ where he asked participants to describe an animated image showing an underwater scene of fish, plants, bubbles, and other animals. He found that Westerners mainly noticed the larger fish and dismissed the rest of the scene, while East Asians made detailed comments about the environment and the relationships between the scene and the objects.

Another part of the experiment showed the participants the same image with slight changes in the background. Most East Asians were able to point out the changes, but Westerners couldn’t.

This study led Professor Nisbett to conclude that Westerners were using an analytical thinking process and East Asians were using a more holistic thinking process. Others refer to these processes as ‘linear’ and ‘circular’ respectively.

Analytical thinking is characterised by a focus on objects and the rules that apply to them, the use of categorisation, and formal logic to solve problems. A focus on the context and not on single objects is used in holistic thinking, as well as more consideration of the relationships between factors.

Professor Nisbett’s work is not saying that Westerners do not think holistically or that East Asians can’t be analytical, but his research highlights patterns in the thinking process of people in these two geographic groups and the influence of cultural differences in the way we see the world.

I won’t go into too much detail but the research of Lera Boroditsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), even suggests that language shapes the way we think, which is something worth considering in our effort to write good content for our varied audiences.

Reading speed

In a study into the reading speed of non-native English speakers, a group of 70 male and female undergraduate students were presented with two different reading tests with different reading levels. The study found that non-native English speakers took longer to read the texts when compared to native English speakers.

Our web pages are read by University staff, students, their parents, and the general public. When multiple cultural backgrounds and native languages are part of your audience, using plain English can help your web readers understand the message in less time.

Recommendations

Next time you are preparing content for an international audience:

  • use subtitles or summaries to provide context
  • write in plain English and avoid idioms
  • do not make assumptions based on your cultural background or familiarity with a subject
  • increase your understanding of your audience and their needs
  • consider your readers’ thinking process when planning your page content.

If you are curious about who visits your web pages and how your audience interacts with them, contact the Digital Communications team to request usability testing.

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