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Why Language is Important for Web Accessibility

Apr 26, 2018

April 23rd was English Language Day, which is observed by the United Nations as an annual celebration of the history and culture of the English language. As the traditional birthday and death date of William Shakespeare, April 23rd is the ideal day for events such as holding book and poetry readings, putting on plays, giving speeches, and learning new words.

English is not only the language of Shakespeare, but also the de facto language of science, diplomacy, and the Internet. Yet English is by no means the only language used on websites: other languages such as Spanish and Mandarin Chinese each have hundreds of millions of users online.

In this article, we’ll discuss why developing websites with language and multilingualism in mind is important for accessibility.

How Language Affects Web Accessibility

Many websites, especially large ones that serve an international community, have content written in two or more languages. Even websites that are written primarily in a single language may include passages, text, and phrases from another language. English, for example, has borrowed hundreds of words and expressions directly from French, such as à la carte, déjà vu, bon voyage, and laissez-faire.

People with visual impairments often use screen reader software while browsing the Internet to vocalize the text of each page. Unless otherwise instructed, screen readers will assume that all of the text on the page is written in the user’s choice of default language. This can create problems and confusion when the software reads text in a foreign language according to the rules of English pronunciation.

Language and WCAG 2.0

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are the most popular standards for web accessibility. They consist of criteria at three different “success levels” that describe how well the website conforms to accessibility guidelines.

WCAG 2.0 includes several criteria pertaining to language and multilingualism. First, the language of every page on the website, as well as different passages and phrases, can be “programmatically determined” by software such as screen readers. In practice, this means using the lang attribute in HTML to mark the main language of the page, as well as any changes in language.

For example, a page written primarily in English would include the <html lang="en"> tag at the top of the page. Any phrases or text written in another language would be wrapped in the appropriate lang attribute, such as <p lang="fr"> for a paragraph in French.

Level AAA, the highest success level of WCAG 2.0, also includes several additional language-related criteria:

  • Users must have a way to identify potentially unfamiliar words, such as idioms, jargon, and abbreviations.
  • Any text that is more complex than a secondary education level comes with supplementary content that people at this reading level can understand, such as a simpler text summary with illustrations.
  • When a word’s pronunciation is ambiguous in context (such as the present and past tenses of the verb read), the website explicitly identifies the word’s correct pronunciation.

Final Thoughts

Events such as English Language Day remind us of how important it is to plan for multilingualism and different languages when thinking about web accessibility. Follow the BoIA blog for the latest news and advice about making your website more accessible.

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