Ideas on best ways to engage in multilingual conversations

This topic has been touched on in a couple of other threads, but I think it deserves its own. It applies to both the iNatualist site and the forum, so I am not sure how to categorize it. I have been using google translate to read comments in different languages, and I enjoy being able to see the different written languages as well as seeing the translations. I worry about mistranslations and misunderstandings, though.

I would love to show respect for languages other than the only language I am fluent in (English) by responding to someone’s comment in the language in which it was written. There is only one other language (Spanish) that I have so far attempted to do that in, via google translate, and a couple of times I have changed the wording before sending because I did not like the translation. For responses to comments in other languages, I am too concerned about not really knowing whether the translation is right to do anything other than respond in English, and then I just hope that that doesn’t seem disrespectful. I have thought of responding in both languages, but I’m not sure that is the best way, either.

I think it’s great to be in a global community, and all the different languages make that seem so much more real. I am interested in hearing what others think are the best ways to engage in multilingual conversations, considering that the translation tools are not perfect.


I would suggest:

  1. Write in your own language

You are far more likely to be able to convey your meaning if you use the language you are most fluent in.

  1. Write simply

Always try to convey your message as clearly and succinctly as possible, and try not to rely on complicated language constructs, such as innuendo and humour.

  1. Leave the translation to the recipient

They might be able to understand English enough to extract your meaning, whereas introducing the translation step may introduce errors that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

  1. Encourage others to use their primary (or preferred) language wherever possible

Especially if you have access to a translation [service] that you have a high confidence in.

  1. Encourage important messages to be repeated in different ways

Especially if you are not confident in the translation [service], having things repeated in different ways can help highlight mis-translations and mis-understandings. Heck, we even need to do this more with English:English!

  1. Don’t hesitate to reach out and find an intermediary

If communication proves difficult, an intermediary that is confident in both languages can help identify and clarify misunderstandings. They don’t need to directly translate, but in just observing the exchange, they can spot those parts of a translation that might be troublesome or mis-interpreted, and can chip in with clarifications.


Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful reply.


Most of my multilingual conversations have been with Spanish speakers in Latin America. So far it’s been successful with everyone just writing in their own language, like what kiwifergus said. I would really like to learn Spanish so I usually try to get an impression of what the other person is talking about first, then put it Google Translate to know what (hopefully) they’re actually saying.
I know Google Translate can be unreliable or at least have bad grammar so I generally don’t translate my own writing into Spanish in case it changes my meaning. I think most of the Spanish speakers can read English as well anyway, and if not they can just pop it in Google Translate like I do with their messages.
So I guess I don’t see it as disrespectful to write in English, since I assume other people know about online translators and I’d rather that than unintentionally messing up what I’m trying to say in their language.


The app/extesion version you can install to get a translation without leaving the iNat observation page is very handy. The tool also helps when people have described their observation in another language. I can get a quick sense of the person’s observation notes.


Speaking as someone bilingual (primary language English), who has spent the last five years learning the native language of my new country:

If someone switches from their native language to speak with you in English, please respond in English. They’re likely trying to be friendly / flexible. Or reply in both languages if you can.

It’s better to speak your native language, since it will likely lead to fewer misunderstandings than an attempt to translate. Include both but be sure to include a language you actually know how to use.
It’s a frequent complaint in the Anglophone expat community here that it’s so much harder to understand an Israeli butchering English than to parse correct Hebrew. For some reason, the moment someone hears my American accent, or if I forget a word and insert a few English ones, that’s a cue to switch from Hebrew to English regardless of skill. Please no.

It’s much easier to read / understand another language than to write / speak it.

You don’t necessarily have to avoid complex language structure, so long as you choose unambiguous language and relatively common words. If you want to include a rare or technical word, it’s OK, but consider explaining it (in parentheses).

Please remember that a misunderstanding can just as easily come from misunderstood grammar or cultural difference, than from vocabulary.

Please avoid metaphors or phrases that require cultural knowledge to understand. For instance, if I were to say “what am I, a goat?”, you probably would have no idea what I’m saying. (Yes, that’s a real Israeli expression).

If you’re writing in English to a non-native speaker, check yourself for grammar and spelling mistakes before you hit send! A non-native speaker may not be able to pick it out as a mistake and a machine translator certainly won’t.


I have school Afrikaans, fluent German - and English is my first language.
Starting from English we are spoilt, since so many multi-lingualists can so effortlessly switch to fluent English. I have often had fluent and friendly face to face conversations, where we each use our chosen first languages, and understand each other. The trick is to laugh at their jokes, which proves that yes, you do, understand. Working in Switzerland I would use German or English to communicate with - French, Romantsch, Chinese and Burmese, many East European languages, Japanese …

I will not write in German (since my keyboard is English and my German grammar is glitchy) but I will, understand what you write.

Anything is good - except - write in English, this community is English. That makes me see red. Right click translate to English, if that is what YOU need. Rant over. Apologies.


i agree, saying this is really inappropriate. If it isn’t an official forum guideline it should be. @tiwane ? People should talk in whatever language they are fluent is and then we can use all the wonderful options available to help us understand. I know a little bit of Spanish so in person I will try to communicate in Spanish with people who speak it (and probably i’ll do a bad job) but when typing on here, i think what others are saying is right on: use the language you know best and let others translate. After all, it’s easier to read than write a second language, right?


I pretty much agree with everything @kiwifergus says. I think it’s much better for everyone to write in the language with which they are most comfortable. I think it’s much better for someone to post exactly what they mean rather than post a Google translated message which may have muddled their words. If someone here posts in Russian (a language which I don’t understand) and I use Google to translate it, I can attribute any strangeness to the Google translation, knowing the original poster wrote exactly what they wanted to write. And someone who can read Russian will understand exactly what original Russian text means.


I’m not sure that speaking in my native language is the best way to encourage a member to respond.
I answer in French only to observers whom I have clearly identified as Francophone. For all others, I answer in (approximate) English, sometimes in their language when I know it well enough to judge the quality of the translations (Deepl rather than G.translator).
My experience with iNat shows that a question asked in English to a non-English speaking member receives less response than a question asked in his (supposed) language.
When I really need an answer, for the very many languages I don’t know, I propose a french text to the online translator, then I translate its proposal back into French: if the meaning is about right, I post, if not, I rephrase!


I some times say “hello” in the language they’re using and then continue in English. I use simple sentences so machine translators and new users can read it more easily.

If I ID or comment on a post that’s in another language, especially one that uses a different alphabet (say, Japanese or Greek), I use Google Translate to read any text that was provided. Then I cut and paste that into my comments as:

Google Translate: “…”

I figure that helps other nonspeakers of that language participate in the identification and it lets the original person know what I THINK they wrote.


Agree with this wholeheartedly. There were not-too-distant past times when speaking Lithuanian (in Lithuania) one might sometimes hear a phrase “speak in human language”. " Write in English, this community is English" is less damaging, of course, but in this age of translation technologies should not be used. If one’s English is not enough to communicate, national language should be OK. Small misunderstandings will happen, but they always can be rectified.


I would hope to be able to amend this thought slightly. That no participant should feel forced to use a translation online tool to start or participate in a discussion, but users trying to help or engage in one should be able to do so, and hopefully state they have done so. In particular with questions about how to do something on the site (versus debate/discussion), there may not be another speaker of the language available.

I also encourage people to refer to, and even list yourself (All users can edit the page, you don’t need to be a curator to be listed there, or just send a message to a curator asking to be added) on

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Perhaps - what jurga li meant was - ‘write in English’ should not be used?

It would be nice knowing some people who can help bridging English to local languages, in case translations using google translate or the similar sound weird. I can help with Italian to English in case anyone needs that


If you’re looking to translate Spanish, is my favorite for this, I speak Spanish and English but still end up using it a lot. Spanishdict doesn’t just do individual words, my favorite part about it is that you can put in a sentence/multiple sentences/a small paragraph and it puts it through three translators and you can compare them, because sometimes one translator can translate a certain part of a sentence correctly, but not the rest of it.
My advice is that the best online dictionaries are ones that do a single language, not like google translate which tries to do so many. Google translate occasionally works for some technical words, but it’s often wrong and I dislike using it, though sometimes it is all I can find. My exception to this rule is wordreference which for Spanish at least, does very well with slang, technical words, and idiomatic phrases.

I’m not sure if this site has been translated into many languages, but anyone should be able to use whatever language they like. This is extremely true when speaking about the environment because languages hold traditional knowledge about plants and animals, some of which can’t really be translated into another language. Talking about nature in many languages, especially endangered and indigenous languages, is vital to maintaining a different and deeper understanding of it.

Mistranslations and misunderstandings will happen both ways, whether you are talking through the internet or not, it is part of communicating between more than one language. If you let people know you don’t really know the language well, I think they will understand.


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Note: humour:
When conversing with a non-English speaking person, speak LOUDER, and e-nun-ciate.

Seriously, I work with a lot of French speaking people in Canada, and try to use Google Translate to reply in their chosen language. I’m learning some French terms, and some of them use Google to communicate with me. I can make out basic French, and have not had to ask for a translation. I don’t engage much with other languages, but think it is only polite to try and communicate in people’s native language. Google Translate may not work perfectly, but I have always been able to work out the meaning. Oh, and I agree with @kiwifergus about humour etc. Although recently a French speaking person added a comment (in French) ‘my God, these Noctuids’. I got it without translation!