Google and Udacity Nudge Against English Language Dominance Online

Shrink the globe

The worldwide web shrinks the cultural distance between the globe’s peoples, but it reserves most favored nation status for those in the English-speaking world.

There’s efforts to change that, such as the non-profit that made a new podcasting app with all its links, buttons and instructions in the various languages of Iran, as we previously reported. The idea was to encourage an Iranian audience to connect with the broader world by making it as easy as possible for people there to navigate the plethora of audio on-demand content.

With all the startups out there trying to hack growth, find new users and put out press releases about being the “fastest growing” Uber-for-Chalupas (or whatever), onlookers might assume that making products available in different languages would be one of the most obvious paths to growth. That’s not how it works, though. Even companies that are founded by non-English speaking teams design user interfaces in English, because the American market is still seen as the most valuable.

Google and Udacity would like to see a web that’s friendlier to users all over the globe, but localizing an app isn’t as simple as running all the words through a free translator, so Google announced on its developers’ blog Wednesday that it has collaborated with the online learning company to build a free course on making the web comprehensible worldwide.

“Today, localization is becoming more and more important because the internet user base is growing rapidly, especially in non-English speaking countries,” Bert Vander Meeren, Director of Localization at Google, says in the blog post.

Localization Essentials is a free, beginner-level course on Udacity that the site estimates takes about two weeks. See Googlers describe it while making a stilted West Wing‘esque walk through Alphabet offices in this trailer:

Alban Denoyel is the co-founder of a French startup called SketchFab, which makes it easy to view 3-D designs on 2-D screens. We recently reported on forays into WebVR. Even though its creators are French, all the words used on SketchFab’s product are in English.

Its monolingual user interface is easy to explain—SketchFab has a small team and localizing takes a lot of work. “The product is hopefully simple enough to use even with very limited English knowledge,” he wrote the Observer in an email. “It speaks for itself that only 20 percent of our users are in the US, without localisation.”

Meanwhile, Google has a whole localization team, enough to make its many apps in 70 languages. Team members built the course for Udacity, using the company’s very multimedia approach to online learning.

Startups probably won’t be able to localize in quite so many places any time soon, but a company might be able to peel off a piece of a fresh funding round to swing a few more languages. Efforts like that make the world smaller and the web more accessible. Plus, the non-profit that made the Iran-oriented podcasting app, United for Iran, also proved that there are talented people eager to fill those gaps, but founders will need to enlist them. Even then, willing staff might not be enough. They’ll need guidance too.

Paul Ford is the co-founder of Postlight and a prominent writer on the tech industry. His company builds lots of digital products for major companies, including a new Bloomberg app that overlays financial data onto any news article.

“Let me tell you, localization is very hard, and it takes time and expertise,” he wrote the Observer. “So anything at all that helps and increases the knowledge about internationalization is a net good.”