Understanding WCAG 2.0: 3.1.1 – Language of Page

The next standard we’ll explore in our series on understanding WCAG 2.0 is 3.1.1 Language of Page. This standard is required for WCAG level A compliance, which is part of what Section 508 requires. Here’s the complete text:

3.1.1 Language of Page: The default human language of each Web page can be programmatically determined. (Level A)

When a screen reader reads a page, it needs a voice to use. Here’s the default voice on my Mac reading some words in Spanish:

That’s not too dissimilar from how I sound, which isn’t a coincidence. The default voice tried to pronounce words like an American English speaker (IETF code EN_US), which is what I am. The problem in the audio file above is that we told my computer to pronounce Spanish words (“¡Hola! Cómo estás!“) as though they were in English.

If we’d instead told the computer the words were in Spanish, we’d have heard this:

That uses the ES_ES voice (which, on a Mac, is named Monica). And it sounds totally natural (or, at least, as natural as computer generated language can be).

To specify a language for your entire document, simply add a lang attribute to the html tag:

<html lang="en">

Confusingly, the language codes we use in HTML are different from the IETF codes. Instead, we use ISO-639-1.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to modify the tags on the page. For instance, you might be using a platform that generates HTML, and you don’t have access to change the output. In those cases, you can instead add a Content-Language header to your server:

Content-Language: en

But sometimes, that’s not an option either. You might be stuck with a platform that can only generate HTML 4.01, or you might only be able to insert tags into the header and body, but not modify html tag directly.

For those times, your only option is to use the absolute wrong way to specify a language:

<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en">

This meta tag (meaning a tag that’s about a page, rather than part of a page), is now considered obsolete. But if it’s your only option, it’s your only option.

If you’d like to read more document language codes, you may also be interested in these techniques, which provides more detail. I also found this blog post very helpful, as well as this page on w3.org.

Interested in more? Check out the listing of all the posts in this series.

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