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Which Languages Does Your Business Need To Speak?

Which languages does your business need to speak?

In many ways the world seems smaller these days. Digital products like apps can theoretically be downloaded and accessed from anywhere, e-commerce is big business and even traditional importing and exporting can be easier in an ever more interconnected world.

It still takes a lot of effort to really reach out to overseas markets however. Forget Field Of Dreams (what do you mean you already had!?) because simply building your own little corner of cyberspace and hoping for the best does not mean ‘they’ will come.

You mean not everyone speaks English?

According to Statista some one and a half billion people worldwide speak English to some degree. That’s a pretty impressive statistic – until you realise it also means that five and a half billion don’t. It might come as a bit of a shock, especially for those tourists whose instinctive response to hitting a linguistic loggerhead is to simply repeat what they said slower and more loudly, but most of the world speaks no English at all.

Furthermore, of that one and a half billion, only 375 million are native speakers (interestingly, English is not an official language in either the UK or America, although most of the population are native English speakers). To give it its due, English is still the most commonly used language online. It often also serves as a lingua franca in the business world but numerous studies have proven what ought to be common sense – that people who speak English as a second language prefer to visit websites, and especially to shop, in their own native language.

Depending on what you’re offering, it might not even be enough to simply translate your content. Thorough localisation can also involve adapting your website or product to better meet cultural preferences and expectations. This can be time-consuming and expensive so which languages or countries should you go for?

Localising for the right locale

Here’s another stat. There are more than 7,000 living languages in the world and, while we certainly wouldn’t want to denigrate any of them, some languages are certainly more, shall we say, ‘niche’ than others. You’re not going to reach everyone on the planet, even if you’re McDonald’s or Facebook (although both are having a good try), so there are some languages that can easily be pushed down the priority list.

A Tech Crunch study looked at companies it called ‘unicorns’. These are the tech-based venture-backed private companies valued at USD $1 billion or more. The most widely translated or internationalised unicorn is Tinder, which speaks 33 languages. Uber, Jawbone and Box all use more than 30 but the majority of these tech giants speak less than 10. According to data from an SVB IEO Report, in 2015 you can reach 90% of online consumers using 25 languages. Clearly the key is to target your localisation rather than trying to adopt a one-size-fits-all-approach.

The best languages and markets to localise for will of course vary depending on the nature of your business. Google Analytics can let you know where visitors to your English language website are based. This can sometimes give a “jumping off” point, but thorough market research is key, especially before sinking time and money into a major localisation project.

For Tech Crunch’s unicorns, the most popular languages were English, French, German and Japanese. Mandarin Chinese, despite being the world’s most spoken primary language, is less well catered for. This might be surprising, considering it represents such a vast emerging market, but it could be down to the fact that the Golden Shield Project, aka the Great Firewall of China, can have an effect on what tech companies can and can’t do within that market, while many consumers prefer domestic brands anyway.

Video game companies will frequently localise or internationalise their products for EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) and CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) to make sure they hit many of the major gaming markets. It’s worth noting however that a successful game in one market will not always port to another, especially when dealing with story-based games.

As ever, you have to take cultural preferences into account and determine if there is a market for your product before deciding to take the localisation plunge.

*Photo credits: Dragon Images /

Christian Arno, Founder and President, Lingo24

Christian Arno is Founder and President of Lingo24. He started the company in 2001 after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in languages. He has won numerous awards including HSBC Business Thinking and International Trade Awards (2010), and TAUS Excellence Award (2012) for innovative technology. He contributes to leading industry publications and has been featured on the BBC, in the Financial Times and other media around the world.

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