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I am currently writing (translating) ux content for a web app that targets children who want to practice languages. Our UIUX designer decided to come up with 3 types of language systems, one is interface language, another is the user's mother language and the last one is the language they want to learn. Her purpose is to let users freely choose the interface language they are familiar with. In the app, when users are learning languages, the system will show their mother language ( depending on the sections).

For example, based on the uiux's case study: the user is a Japanese learning English. She is already familiar with English so she will set up the interface language as "English". When she is learning "English" in our app, some of the sections will be displayed in Japanese ( such as the learning content, translation, explanation, etc) but the UX writing such as guiding user "how to learn" and interactive buttons are still in English. The way she distributes which section belongs to mother language or interface language I find it very confusing because the system is showing multiple languages at the same time. Should I suggest she merge both interface and mother languages as one only?

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  • I think this is a great idea from a language learner's perspective. Maybe not from a general UX perspective. But I think you can control for that. As long as the interface is in mother tongue by default, nobody should get too confused. Apr 22 at 17:21
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    Add a constraint that the interface language must be either the mother language or the learned language?
    – Bergi
    Apr 22 at 17:23
  • Another option to maintain clarity is to always have a "show in mother tongue" button visible, and written in the mother tongue regardless of interface language so they can go back if needed. Or a toggle in the topbar between the two choices (also solves for Bergi's note). Apr 22 at 17:26
  • @Bergi I wouldn't necessarily enforce that constraint. For example, Duolingo has a "German for Spanish Speakers" course, but currently no "Norwegian for Spanish Speakers" course. Someone whose native tongue is Spanish and wants to learn Norwegian likely has to make do with the "Norwegian for English Speakers" course. -- Despite that fact, they may prefer to have the standard UI elements (the ones shared with "German for Spanish Speakers") be in Spanish.
    – R.M.
    Apr 22 at 20:00
  • @R.M. Sure, though "Norwegian for Spanish Speakers, with Spanish UI" would be the optimal user experience. The OP's business model and course design might be different from Duolingo - maybe they can implement arbitrary combinations of source and target languages? If they can't, you're right that they'll have to make a trade-off between not offering courses that don't work with the interface language, using three languages on the same page (which OP dislikes), or require switching the interface language to English for that course.
    – Bergi
    Apr 22 at 20:08

2 Answers 2

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TL;DR: Mixing languages...

  • Looks messy or unprofessional
  • Can cause ambiguous interpretations
  • Adds cognitive load

More context:

We have a multi language application in use. When a translation doesn't exist, the system uses a default text, which is in English. In development a lot of translations are still missing and from my own experience I can say that it doesn't look professional but messy or even buggy.

Mixed language can also cause ambiguous interpretations. For example, the meaning of the word 'pet' differs in Dutch from English. It is often possible to decipher the meaning from context, but it can take a second to grasp (adds cognitive load), especially for people unfamiliar with the interface.

I don't know how Japanese people experience switching between two language systems, but it must add cognitive load to process the different symbols and systems.

Edit: It can also very much depend on the country and the language. So it is advisable to do some research.

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    I don't believe any of this applies here. Mixing languages because "oh this line hasn't been translated" is totally different to mixing languages because "here is a sentence in the language you are trying to learn. Let me explain what to do in a language you already know."
    – Jac
    Apr 22 at 19:54
  • It is not just about text that hasn’t been translated, that was just an example from my personal experience. I answered from a general perspective. All three statements apply to any application that mixes languages, so also a language learning application.
    – jazZRo
    Apr 22 at 22:38
  • No they don't. It is absolutely standard to mix L1 and L2 on the same page during language learning. It does not at all look 'messy or unprofessional'. It shouldn't be ambiguous because each language is used consistently - you can use different colors or weights if fussed. It does introduce cognitive load - so does presenting calculus on a page teaching calculus, that's the point.
    – Jac
    Apr 22 at 22:56
  • Reading from the question, the UX wrting is not meant for learning the language, but to understand and use the application, as it should. As I said I answered from the general perspective of UX writing.
    – jazZRo
    Apr 23 at 6:57
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If I am asked what language the interface should use, then I want the app to use that language. Not decide "oh you probably don't really understand English, so this bit is going to be in Japanese."

Either don't let them select an interface language, or follow their selection. You can add a button or text on hover or other kind of affordance for 'show me this page in $other Language' as a backup if you think people will want that.

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  • I agree with the first paragraph but not with the second. From the question it is clear that the UX writing is meant to understand and use the application, as it should be, not to learn a language. The user indeed chooses a language for the application with a reaon. The UX designer mentioned does the assumption that the chosen language isn't fully understood because it is not the native language. But as you said it is better not to make that assumption.
    – jazZRo
    Apr 23 at 6:57

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