If your website or app is created in English, you may think your job is done when it comes to other English-speaking communities around the world. Unfortunately not.

If you visit a non-English speaking country and speak English, it’s likely you’ll be able to interact with locals.

But when it comes to more in-depth conversation – and more crucially to the written word – there are many different variations of the English language to consider.

Spelling, grammar and vocabulary can all vary between different forms of English, not to mention different conventions around date, time and measurements. Applying the wrong rules for the wrong audience can make your business look out-of-touch and unprofessional.

This article explores the main issues to be aware of when localizing your website or app for a different variation of English.

The different types of English language

There are many different varieties of English spoken around the world. Here’s a breakdown of the most important types to consider when localizing your app for English.

British English

This is the oldest version of English, used in the UK and throughout Europe, with around 60 million native speakers.

American English

This is the most widely spoken language in the United States and has the largest number of native speakers worldwide – 225 million.

Canadian English

Don’t be mistaken for thinking that Canadian English and American English are one and the same. While Canadian English is most close to American English, it also includes some elements of British English. And, to confuse you even further, it also has some aspects that are unique to Canada.

Australian English

The most widely spoken language in Australia, settlers have been developing this distinct form of the English language since they arrived in 1788.

Other widely spoken variations of English include Indian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Philippine English and Ugandan English.

What differences need to be considered?

Vocabulary

Apply the wrong variation between US and British English and it can make for some comical misunderstandings. Ask someone who speaks British English “should I wear pants tonight?” and they could look at you strangely; “pants” mean underwear, not trousers.

Worse, a British person asking to borrow a rubber in the US could end up in an awkward situation as this is the American slang word for condoms! 

And, an American describing someone as “pissed” could easily be written off as rude in the UK, where this is not only regarded as a swear word, but also means drunk, rather than angry; its US meaning.

Spelling

This is one of the most important aspects of differentiation for businesses localizing their websites or apps.

As a general rule, US English often simplifies the spellings of words. Common differences between US and British English include using a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ in many words ending ‘ize’, and dropping the ‘u’ in words such as ‘colour’ and ‘honour’.

Australian English spelling tends to be closer to British English, keeping the ‘ou’ in the same examples as above, and Canadian is largely closer to US, using a ‘z’ in place of ‘s’ in words such as analyze and realize. 

But watch out for anomalies that don’t follow any set rules, such as Australians using the US spelling ‘program’ regardless of the meaning.

Date and time

Ask an American the time and they’ll say “six-o-five”, whereas in Britain and Australia you’ll be told it’s “five past six”.

Dates can also get confusing, especially when written down. American protocol is month-day-year and British is day-month-year – set a date for 4/10/20 and it could be April 10 or 4 October, depending on the language variation you speak. 

In Canada, this gets even more complex, as either 10 April 2020 or April 10, 2020 are acceptable.

Measurements

The Canadian approach to imperial versus metric measurements is a bit of a mismatch too. Canadian English tends to use pounds for weighing, but kilometers for driving.

The Imperial system is used in the US, so you’ll find inches, feet, yards and pounds – and you can often tell a US recipe if it uses cups for measurements. For British English, the Metric system of meters and grams is used.

Consider your audience carefully

Be clear about your audience and the variation of English that is most suitable for them.

Remember, it’s not just about spelling and language. You’ll need to be consistent with cultural references to slang words, date and time and measurements. All these things combined create one localized offering – or locale – that help to create a seamless user experience.