• International Schools
Multi-Language Websites: Examples and Best Practices from International Schools
Debbie Eisenach

With over 10,000 international schools and 5 million students (and growing), the hottest markets for international schools are in countries where English is not the native language, including China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates (source ISC Research). Given that the five top languages spoken around the world are Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion) followed by English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, it should give you pause as to not only how you’re reaching your audience but what the words actually say.  

With upwards of 60 nationalities at many international schools and with US boarding schools enrolling an ever-diverse student population, optimizing communications in  multiple languages in order to reach various constituents is critical — especially if you:

  • Have a large population of host country families at your school

  • Have partnerships with corporations where English is not the native tongue; or

  • Are trying to recruit a certain nationality to your boarding school.

Ecole Des Roches website homepage

L’ecole des Roches quadrilingual website - Russian, Chinese, English and French

As a native English speaking raising my own children at international schools in both Asia and Europe, I know there are parents who miss out on important information and events due to misunderstanding the school’s communication. I have also spoken with families who have chosen other schools because they misinterpreted the website content and believed the school could not meet their admission needs, when in fact the school was a good fit. This is hardly a good reason to lose a family to another school! And, for families who don’t benefit from a “Look and See” pre-visit and tour to check out schools, the website is one of their primary—if not the only—reliable source of information.  

In the past, one option for adding language translation plug-in to a site was to use the free Google Translate Website Widget which, although not perfect, “worked”. However Google recently eliminated new access to their translator and are encouraging the use of browsers that support native translation. But that’s not necessarily the answer, either.

Here’s what Google has to say about this school’s arts program when translating it to one language and back to English:

Native English Version

Learn more about the arts screenshot from school website

Chinese Version Translated into English with browser translation

English translated to Chinese with browser translation

Good enough? Maybe. Certainly those well-chosen words get lost … in translation. Let’s try another, on a school’s value proposition page:

English:

“We believe that your willingness to serve and give selflessly speaks volumes about your character – and provides the foundation for a life well lived.”

To Spanish and back:

“We believe that your willingness to serve and give disinterestedly speaks volumes about your character, and provides the basis for a life well lived.”

Again, not bad. As a non-native Spanish speaker, I don’t know where “selflessly” becomes “disinterestedly”, but those are very different words with very different connotations. The intricacies of various verb tenses, colloquialism, and other nuisances/subtleties fall short in many cases. And if you are asking families to pay thousands of dollars for a private education, it seems clear that you’d want content that these same “buyers” can understand.

Let’s try something more nuts and bolts: getting people to campus.

Original:

“We've designed three opportunities to help you start your exploration. We can tweak your visit to suit your particular interests and to make your experience positive and educational.

  • The tour and interview

  • Class Visit Day

  • Open House”

Translated to Arabic and back:

“Explore your. We can modify your visit to suit your own interests and make your experience positive and educational.

Round and interview

Day of the class visit

Open house”

You’d be hard-pressed to find an admissions officer who is excited about some of the keywords and phrases that are missed or mistranslated.

What’s more, from a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) standpoint, serving pages that are natively translated is a superior solution for ensuring Google understands what your pages are saying and how relevant they are to the end user, according to a very good article in Search Engine Land.

St. Louis School website homepage screenshot

St. Louis School - Milan, Italy | Bilingual Site - Italian and English

So how do you go about deciding if you should have a multilingual, bilingual, or just certain pages translated on your school website? If 80% of your families speak Turkish, or say 40% are native German speakers (as is the case in my children’s international school), it’s a question worth digging into. 

Hisar Okulları Istanbul website homepage screenshot

Hisar School - Istanbul, Turkey | Bilingual Site: Turkish and English

Many schools have people who can (and are willing to) translate content within their schools, but you can also look to outside services. Gengo is a professional translation service that charges .12 cents per translated word. Based on this metric, a few admissions landing pages might cost between $40 and $60; a well-crafted “Director’s Welcome” might cost $50. Using these ballparks numbers, this price point seems more than reasonable given how important these pages are for prospective families.

Frequently Asked Questions webpage of Chadwick International website

Chadwick International - FAQ Section Translated into Chinese

Where to Start Translating?

Since the practical matters of deploying a dual or multilingual website with true native translations are considerable, it’s important to prioritize where to start. Google Analytics will quickly show you what country your site visitors are coming from and what their browser language is. Combining those data points with which pages they visit most and how much they spend on your admissions page are important starting points. From there, other key considerations include:

  • Should you translate the whole website or just certain pages?

  • Which pages should you focus on?

  • Who will translate the pages?

  • How do you technically set up the site?

  • How easy will it be to maintain?

Once you’ve established the order in which to tackle translated pages, deploying the content in a way that’s easy to administer is next. In working with over 200 international schools around the world, Finalsite knows the importance of the school website regardless of location, and has designed its platform to handle these complexities.

Keystone Academy website homepage screenshot

Keystone Academy - Beijing, China | Bilingual Site: Chinese and English

For those schools who want translation without using a plug-in and want to invest in content that is written in the native language, Finalsite’s content management system supports both a completely mirrored site in one or more foreign languages, or just for certain pages. The Bilingual European School (BES) has two sets of pages in Composer’s sitemap to individual handle each page, then a toggle for users to navigate to one or the other. This allows for content specific to the language, as well as any unique layout treatments for individual pages.  This kind of translation can play out in terms of navigation, content and sitemap.

Bilingual European School website homepage navigation

 Bilingual European School - Milan, Italy

Bilingual European School in Composer Pages menu

Don’t forget the user!

If you’ve invested the time and resources to build a site that has translated pages, make sure it’s easy for users to switch among languages.

The Chinese International School has a very clean way to let uses navigate between English and Mandarin. Primary navigation and the opened hamburger menu respond accordingly and include natively translated words and content seamlessly.

Chinese International School navigation in Chinese and English

Deutsche Schule London also does a nice job, using flag icons.

Deutsche Schule London bilingual navigation

One last example, L’ecole des Roches does a nice job of helping the user move amongst 4 languages (top right):

L’ecole des Roches homepage website translation to four languages

Key Takeaway

Surely, over time, translating websites to provide a comprehensive multilingual website experience will be just a plug in, or detect what language a user already wants to use. But in the meantime, careful consideration of how key admissions or parent pages are handled with regards to your native speakers is important.


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Debbie Eisenach

As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 9 years while living in both Asia and Europe. From conference planning and presentations, to association events, and client success stories, she helps schools understand how they can maximize their digital presence while partnering with Finalsite. In her free time she enjoys traveling and attending events at her children's international school in Berlin, Germany.

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