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Bad Language, Sh*thole Countries, and Design

Actual conversation with a client team (have I mentioned that my clients astound me with their thought processes & decisions? I’m so lucky to get to work with people with vision, guts, and ethics – who are working for the change they want to see in society).

Me: So, what decision did you arrive at with regards to the languages for your site? I know we’re doing English and Spanish. Are we doing Creole as well? That’s a decision we said we’d finalize by this meeting.

Team member A: I’m not sure. Do you guys know how many people are actually interacting with us who speak Creole?

Team member B: It’s not that many compared to our Spanish speakers. But still there’s a decent-sized group.

Team member C: It’s not going to represent a huge cost to produce this in a 3rd language. I mean, IF OUR PRESIDENT IS GOING TO GO AROUND SAYING “SH*THOLE COUNTRIES,” WE ARE ABSOLUTELY GOING TO DO A FULL TRANSLATION OF OUR SITE FOR OUR CREOLE-SPEAKING CLIENTS.

All: (Laughter, groans, omg, is this really the world we’re living in)

Team members A & B: Oh… yes, of course. You’re right. Let’s do it.

(Don’t you love it when one person’s horribleness prompts other people to go above and beyond, to live and work at their most humane, generous, respectful, and empowered? Every action has both positive and negative outcomes – but I digress)

Language is powerful. If you’re visiting a place where the local language is something other than your native tongue, and you learn a few words in that language even for basic communication, you’ve created possibilities for yourself that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. If you’re on home turf and sometimes interact with people who don’t speak the primary language of your place, and you endeavor to pick up a few words in their language, you’ve opened a bridge for connecting with those people. Having communication tools in common means you have greater opportunity for relationship.

Many companies, organizations, & governments serve customers who speak multiple languages but who are more comfortable in their native language. Speakers of secondary languages live somewhere on a spectrum of fluency – and for some people, accessing services can be challenging, confusing, or nearly impossible.

On a personal level, speaking with a person in her language makes some powerful statements. I see you, I value you, I respect you, I want to know you. It can be an act of generosity and compassion to meet a person where they are in language.

As an organization, speaking the customer’s language should be “table stakes” (a la Debbie Millman) – the bare minimum requirement for making a connection with the target audience.

But too often, language is an afterthought in design and in business. As a profession in the US, we create materials in our own native language, and then awkwardly retrofit those same designs to other languages when someone says “hey, we think we need this in Spanish too.” We aren’t raising the question with the client during the discovery process, and if do, we’re met with resistance: we don’t have the budget, we don’t have that many customers who need it, why doesn’t everybody just learn English.

I’d argue that language should be part of our discussion about diversity and inclusion. That advocating for the language of the end user, from very the beginning of the process, is a form of design activism. That designers who speak more than 1 language are a tremendous asset on a creative team. That we need to develop business cases (has anybody measured abandonment rates when the customer’s primary language is different than that of the form?) for designing in the language of the end user, and have that ready to go when we meet resistance.

Discussing end-user language in initial conversation with clients, designing for those languages from the beginning, and learning how to make the “business case” for great multilingual design are a few ways we as designers can advocate for a respectful approach to language. And a small but important way we can move society towards greater inclusivity.