How the Language Attribute is demaging Accessibility

It is important for screen readers and text-to-speech software that the main language of a document is specified in the code. The background is that the software must apply the correct pronunciation rules. Language markup is also recommended for phrases or individual paragraphs in foreign languages, although I don't quite see the point here, the explanation follows below. For individual words, however, I think the language markup is annoying and I have to be surprised that the German-language BITV test recommends it.

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The fallacy of the WAI and the BITV testers

Test step 3.1.2a of the BITV test states:

Different language words and paragraphs awarded If there are words and sections of text in another language within a page, they must be marked up using the lang attribute.
This relates to WCAG criterion 3.1.2
Success Criterion 3.1.2 Language of Parts The human language of each passage or phrase in the content can be programmatically determined except for proper names, technical terms, words of indeterminate language, and words or phrases that have become part of the vernacular of the immediately surrounding text.


This is a misinterpretation or incorrect translation of the WCAG criterion. The Success Criterion says phrase or passage, not words.

Any blind screen reader will tell you that marking individual terms as foreign can be distracting and even limit comprehension.

Unfortunately, the organization behind the BITV test - BIK alias accessible information and communication - not interested in the feedback of blind people and therefore resistant to advice. Apparently they believe in a paternalistic way that, being sighted, they can judge better what the blind need. Incidentally, this is a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which provides for the participation of disabled people in matters affecting them. Apparently, the leading DIAS GmbH doesn't give a damn about feedback from people with disabilities. As sighted people, they know what is good for us blind people.

The overrated main language

The main language of a document is one of the most overrated criteria by WCAG and BITV. Its only advantage is that it can be easily implemented on the web or for PDFs.

As mentioned above, many screen reader users turn off automatic language switching, partly because of overzealous BITV testers and misunderstood WCAG rules.

In the Anglo-American area, 99 percent of the documents you read are probably written in your own mother tongue. In most cases, these documents do not contain any foreign-language passages at all. That's why the topic doesn't play a role there.

In German it shouldn't be much different. Except for a handful of blind people, hardly anyone should be able to read documents in English or other languages. and if he does, he is quite capable of activating the right language himself.

Conversely, one cannot assume that a blind person who only speaks German is able to switch off the language change or to understand distinguished terms.

Built-in dictionaries

First of all, modern screen readers have dictionaries in which the pronunciation of common foreign words is also specified.

The word Detail is not pronounced in German, it sounds more like Detai, the L at the end is practically silent. The screen reader can now pronounce it correctly without extra help, as well as chance, restaurant and many other words.

With desktop screen readers, blind people can control pronunciation using their own rules and dictionaries.

But that's not the only reason to refrain from language awards. A while ago I couldn't look up a certain newspaper on the web anymore because the screen reader automatically read out in English, mind you: it read out German text in English and the whole website at that. The first thing I do when reconfiguring a screen reader is to turn off automatic language switching and switch languages manually if necessary. Unfortunately, this only works with desktop screen readers, so far I haven't been able to do it with voiceover or talkback.

Change of voice uncomfortable

In addition, the language change is not exactly pleasant if only individual words are changed. With mobile screen readers like Voiceover, not only the voice often changes, but also the gender: At least Arabic words are read out with a male voice for me, although I have set a female voice as the default.

In addition, voice pitch, intonation and less comprehensible aspects of the speech output change, which at best causes an unpleasant surprise and at worst tears you out of the reading flow. This means that if the voice output switches to American English, British English, Castilian Spanish or French French in the middle of a sentence, it is very likely that the listener will not understand this surprising turn of events cognitively or only with a delay. By the time that happened, the voice output had switched back to the original language and half a sentence was missed again.

This means that the actual purpose of the language change is completely missed, the person at the other end of the line did not understand the word at all because they cannot understand the French of the native speakers or because they did not cognitively participate in the switchover.

High tempo for native language

In addition, many blind people have set their speech output to a high speed. However, they can often only understand their own language at this tempo, while they would slow down the tempo for foreign-language texts. With automatic language switching, however, it is not possible to adjust the tempo for the foreign language.


The language markup for individual words or short phrases is therefore completely superfluous, the editors should concentrate on other factors such as good subheadings. The same applies to the labeling of acronyms and abbreviations. Here one should rather consider whether to use abbreviations such as e.g. B., etc. or Abbr. prefers not to write out or avoids them completely.