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Accessible language

Accessible language is language that includes everyone.

People can feel excluded when:

  • they don’t understand words or phrases
  • language is used in ways that pose challenges to users of other technologies, such as text-to-speech software.

People are more likely to use your website if:

  • it’s easy to navigate
  • the information is clear and easy to understand.

Writing for the web

Writing for the web involves thinking about:

  • the purpose of the page and the user’s goal
  • how people read and process information in an online environment
  • how search engines and machines, like screen readers, read online content
  • the user’s reading ability, the device they may be using, their computer literacy and their familiarity with your subject.

More information:

Accessibility standard requirements

Guideline 3.1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 includes 6 success criteria related to language.

Guideline 3.1 Readable — WCAG 2.1

We recommend applying as many of those success criteria as you can to make your content easier to read and understand. However, the NZ Government Web Accessibility Standard currently requires only 2 of them:

New Zealand Government Web Accessibility Standard 1.1

3.1.1 Language of page — set the main language of your page

To meet success criterion 3.1.1, you must identify the default language of each web page. The easiest way to do this is to add the lang attribute with the correct ISO-639 language code to the <html> tag. This helps screen readers, and other software that processes text and language, to know how to pronounce or render the content.

ISO-639 language codes


  • <html lang="en"> to show a web page is in English
  • <html lang="en-nz"> to show a page is in New Zealand English
  • <html lang="mi"> to show a page is in Māori.

Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.1.

3.1.2 Language of Parts — indicate any changes in the language on the page

A web page will generally use 1 language. However, sometimes you may need to include words or a passage in another language. Success criterion 3.1.2 Language of Parts requires that you show a change in language if it happens. This is so software can tell it apart from the page's main language.

The easiest way to do this is to add the lang attribute — with the correct language code — to the HTML element containing the text that’s in a different language. A common approach is to add the lang attribute to a <p>, <span>, or heading tag.

In this example, the opening <p> tag for the text in te reo Māori uses lang="mi" to show that the content of that p element is in te reo Māori:

<p>This sentence is in English, which is the page's main language.</p>

<p lang="mi">Kei roto tēnei rerenga kōrero i te reo Māori.</p>

<p>This is a new paragraph that defaults to the page's main language.</p>

Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.2.

Setting the language in PDF and Microsoft Word documents

The default language can also be set in PDF and Microsoft Word documents, as can the language of parts of the document where it’s different from the default language.

In Microsoft Word, the way you do this depends on the version of Word. In Word 2010, the default language for the document as a whole can be set in the “Language” group of the Word Options dialog window.

To set the language for a passage of text in Word 2010, first select the text and then choose “Set Proofing Language…” from under the “Language” item in the Review tab.

In Adobe Acrobat Pro, you can set the PDF’s default language from the “Advanced” tab in the “Document Properties” dialog window. To open the “Document Properties” dialog, select “Properties…” from the File menu.

Setting the language of a specific passage of text in a PDF is a little more complicated.

Specifying the language for a passage or phrase with the Lang entry in PDF documents

Utility links and page information

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