Vernac Attack

For so long English has been considered the language of the internet. This popularly held view is undoubtedly due to a number of factors, not least of which would be search engine bias and the fact that in its formative years English did indeed dominate the internet with some reports suggesting that in 1998 as much as 75% of all internet content was in English.

But as much as we like to pretend that 1998 was just a few years ago, the reality in the digital age is that it was almost centuries ago… pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter and pre-iPhone. Jeez, it was so long ago it was almost before the era of the mobile phone.

So, English as the language of the digital age is a myth. And while it might still be the most commonly used language in the digi-sphere, percentage wise it is well below 50. So why then, in a place like South Africa, where we have so many languages, do we still insist on producing the bulk of our content in English?

Especially given that terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘return on investment’ are the big watchwords of the moment. Everybody wants to ‘engage’ an audience, and it is not as easy as people think. Quite simply the old preacher- on-a-train philosophy, where awkward messages are yelled at an audience regardless of whether they are listening or not, is not engagement. And similarly the return on investment for that preacher is very hard to measure.

Instead, you need to hold or facilitate a conversation with your audience, and to do that you need to talk to them correctly. That means that the content and the resultant interactions and conversations that will be sparked, need to be tailored for the platform that is hosting the conversation and in the language most appropriate for a genuine exchange of information – and English isn’t always the best language for that engagement.

For a long time our newsroom was exclusively English. But as we increasingly started to play with our head’s up and our eye’s on the opportunities, both locally and within the continent, it became impossible to remain anglophile and the scope of offering, increased.

As a business we now offer real time content services in Zulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Portuguese and French. And the only real question now is why did it take us so long to get there? It almost goes without saying that if a service is successful in one language that it will be in another. If an English speaking audience enjoys following football commentary in English, then why wouldn’t a Zulu audience enjoy a similar experience in their own language.

And in turn sometimes aligning language and content is important. Cricket services work better in English, a Steve Hofmeyr fan site would be best in Afrikaans and an interactive Sangoma service would be better in Zulu. The days of one-size-fits-all English solutions need to be consigned to history if you really want to deliver an engaged audience.

By: Ant Pascoe
GM TeamTalk Media