It is clear that the world is becoming increasingly connected and business today is certainly international. Most global companies have at least given thought to the many possibilities that could arise with providing their content in different languages. In fact, any business aspiring to sell its products and services to different cultural and linguistic backgrounds will need to take its content to the next multilingual level.
To successfully engage audiences, you should do it in their preferred language: be it localizing online training to better communicate with their employees, translating user guides and product manuals for customer support, or localizing your website to attract visitors from across the globe.
Defining a translation and localization strategy for your business is becoming ever more necessary, as it paves the way forward for these global interactions. Yet, with 6,909 known living languages, it can be difficult to decide which language/s your company should invest in providing.
Your first assessment should be looking at your macro level business goals and core target audiences. Before diving into the language pool, look at what languages your competitors are using to distribute their content and how relevant they are to mimic or move away from. After you’ve gathered all your research, it’s time to read along.
We’ve compiled a handy list of the top 10 languages you should consider for business and marketing content translation when competing in global markets, with the facts and figures on why they are your best bet:
English is the lingua franca of business and academia. It’s spoken in 94 countries by 339 million native speakers and is the official language of the 20 most relevant international organizations, making it a very widespread language. In most countries, it’s also the primary foreign language taught in schools and can be understood by one third of the world’s population.
English language also retains the number one spot as the most commonly used language among Internet users with 949 million users and as the most used language by 52.3% of websites using various content languages.
English is, therefore, crucial for anyone who wants to thrive on the global stage.
Chinese refers to a group of Sino-Tibetan languages with collectively over 955 million native speakers, accounting for 14.4% of the world’s population, and it is by far the most widely spoken language in the world with a momentous number of 1 billion speakers worldwide.
Furthermore, the Chinese economy has experienced astonishing growth in the last few decades, and while Bloomberg predicts it can overtake the U.S. to become the world’s biggest economy by 2026, Forbes estimates that can be achieved by as soon as 2018.
Its dominance in the world’s economy makes it a noticeable source of business opportunity. As Chinese businesses are spreading globally and the country presents emerging outsourcing capabilities due to its low costs and high productivity levels, it’s definitely not a language to be ignored, particularly as English is not widely spoken in China.
Mandarin is also the second most popular language among Internet users, and with sales of $714.58 billion, the country was the world’s leading e-commerce market in 2016. Should key Asian markets continue to expand their Internet usage, Chinese could be expected to supplant English as the most widely used Internet language in the near future.
Mandarin is a verbal (spoken) dialect of Chinese, so for translating any type of written content, you’ll have to choose between the two written forms of the language - Simplified and Traditional Chinese. While the majority of the population uses Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese writing has been trending and making a comeback. The table below details the spoken and written variations of Chinese used in the major Chinese speaking markets:
To summarize, if you need a Chinese interpreter for a business meeting or appointment, your choices are between Mandarin and Cantonese. If you have a document to translate, however, the choices are between Simplified and Traditional Chinese.
Although it might not be perceived as a language of business, with 405 million native speakers, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language after Mandarin, so it’s no surprise to see it on our list.
Having your business content available in Spanish opens doors not only in Spain, but also in booming Latin American countries like Mexico, Peru, Paraguay and Ecuador, and even the United States, where an estimated 37.6 million people speak it as their first language. As the US has the world’s largest economy and the Hispanic population in the US is projected to double by 2050, this makes Spanish enormously important. According to the British Council, Spanish is ‘useful’ for 34% of UK businesses as well.
With an extensive network of bilateral trade agreements, Mexico has some of the most open trade in the world. The UK has also identified it as a priority country for international education.
Arabic is spoken by 295 million speakers worldwide, and it’s the official language of 28 different countries, including many of the dynamic, growing economies in the Middle East and Africa. Six Arabic speaking countries appear among the UK’s top 50 export market in goods, with a combined value to the economy that surpasses that of Spain, China or Italy. This is just one of the explanations why in a report from the British Council, Arabic ranks as the second most important ‘language of the future’.
The Middle East represents a fast-growing market of eager consumers, there is a lot of wealth in the area and there are plenty of governments attracting tourism to their countries, especially for shopping. The World Cup will be hosted by Qatar in 2022 and will attract a large numbers of visitors. Obviously, regional instability is a concern, but that only adds to the demand for all kinds of content in Arabic to serve in intelligence and diplomacy.
The Internet is also rising in the Middle East, and with many Arab speakers only speaking Arabic, translation of online content is crucial to giving your business an advantage in the international market. Although Arabic has had the problem of being difficult to render on websites, the latest software has overcome this, so it is likely that more businesses will be translating their content into Arabic soon.
Businesses should consider making their product lines easily available to the Arabic-speaking world –with its complicated relationship with the West; it will ensure bright results for businesses speaking the same language, with even more significance in the diplomacy, energy and defense sectors.
German has 95 million native speakers and a total of 210 million speakers worldwide. It is also the fourth most used language online. That may seem like a rather small number compared to most of the other languages on this list, but it’s also the language spoken in some of the most economically important countries in Europe: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein. Germany itself is the largest economy in the European Union and an economic powerhouse on the world stage.
Germany is the world’s third largest contributor to research and development, making German particularly important for scientific research and placing it in the top most important scientific languages in the ‘soft sciences’, such as the health sciences, social sciences, psychology, the arts and the humanities.
With a reputation for quality, craftsmanship and intelligence, many German companies dominate their respective industries and if you want their business, you need to use their language.
The German language is expected to benefit from Brexit, alongside French.
Portuguese is spoken by around 215 million people in Portugal (naturally), Brazil and some parts of Africa. It’s also the second most spoken language in Latin America (behind Spanish). It might come as a bit of a surprise, but even in the race for the most users of a language on the Internet, it manages to come in fifth, with a whopping 154.5 million. On the latest CSA Research’s annual update of language benchmark, Portuguese blasted forward with 6.1% share growth after several flat years.
For business, country-wise, Brazil is probably the main attraction. Despite a deep recession, Brazil is still a big country and a big market. It’s the largest economy in Latin America, and there are some indicators that recovery is on its way in the next year or so, which means business opportunities there will only continue to grow.
With Brazil being the most widely cited science base outside the G8, there are opportunities to capitalise on scientific co-operation and collaboration, including in the areas of pharmaceuticals and energy.
The British Council listed Portuguese as one of the top ten most important languages for the UK’s future, citing potential opportunities in trade, science, education, and diplomacy.
The demand for Portuguese in the US is also increasing, and although it has always been an important world language, it has only recently been recognized as an important language for business and international relations.
Portuguese is also gaining popularity in Asia due to the region’s great diplomatic and economic relations with Portugal and Lusophone countries.
According to estimates by UNESCO, Portuguese is the fastest-growing European language after English and the language has, according to the newspaper The Portugal News publishing data given from UNESCO, the highest potential for growth as an international language in southern Africa and South America.
Given these data, it's interesting to consider Portuguese as a useful language to unlock business opportunities located across the four continents.
As one of the BRIC countries, Russia has been identified as one of the four major world powers whose influence is growing fast. It is already the world’s sixth largest economy and is projected to overtake Germany’s by 2030. While the Russian economy contracted in 2016, it’s expected to recover in 2017.
It’s one of the official languages of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which makes Russian an important language for international relations, diplomacy and trade, as the British Council also notes.
The size of the country, its emerging economy and its natural resources, (it is the top oil producer in the world) readily demonstrate its appeal for business. Moreover, Moscow has the highest billionaire population of any city in the world.
Russia is also famous for its great engineering minds and brilliant IT community, and Russian is one of the popular languages of scientific and technical literature in the ‘hard sciences’, such as physics, engineering and materials science.
The English Proficiency Index rates Russia as a country with low proficiency in English, which is also a good indicator that translating your content into Russian can be an important step for meeting international business goals.
Of course, we all know French as the language of love, but it is also a great language for business. With a total of 75 million speakers in 39 countries, French is still a very popular language today. In fact, it is estimated that around 220 million people also speak French as a second language, and that number is projected to rise to 750 million by 2050, possibly even overtaking English and Mandarin. Online, it’s estimated to have around 102 million Internet surfers.
Post-Brexit, we can expect the European Union to begin using French more often, even if English remains an official EU language. French is also an official language of several international organizations, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization,
The French-speaking world also includes Africa, which is growing rapidly and rich in natural resources. The top 5 fastest-growing African economies include Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Cote D’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. French is an official language in 3 of them. In countries like Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam and Cambodia, where there is a low level of proficiency in English, French is particularly useful as a lingua franca.
If you are targeting consumers in these countries, French translation could be a good investment.
Japanese boasts 130 million speakers located primarily in Japan, which happens to be the third largest economy in the world. It’s also the sixth language for Internet users with e-commerce sales in 2016 of $88.06 billion. The British Council calls Japan ‘a significant contributor to UK prosperity – both as an export market and as a major investor’ and notes that Japan provides a wealth of opportunities, especially in terms science and technology.
Although their economy has shown some signs of stagnation, it’s important not to dismiss the ingenuity of Japanese businesses, where, like Germany, Japan has a reputation for excellence. Japanese companies are highly innovative, and Japan is the world’s second largest investor in research and development, and one of the most technologically advanced and integrated nations in the world.
Japan continues to play an important role in high-level international forums and as a major provider of development assistance. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers Japan an important partner in matters of climate policy, energy and resource security, the reform of financial institutions, among others.
As TheRichest.com points out, there’s also the fact that Japan is in the process of building our future robot overlords, so maybe we all need to get with the program: ‘Japan employs over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers. In the next 15 years, Japan estimates that number will jump to over one million, and they expect revenue for robotics to be near $70 billion by 2025.’ Robotics or anything else, revenue of that size might justify any number of economic partnerships.
Why would Hindi be one of the top languages for your business translation and localization strategy? Hindi is the fifth most-spoken language in the world, with 260 million native speakers. India is the seventh largest country by area, the second most populous nation, and arguably the fastest growing major economy.
Along with China, India’s huge consumer base and cultural diversity is regarded as a potentially major future localization market and a potentially significant business opportunity. As a result, the entire bouquet of marketing channels — text, audio, video, ad-film production, etc. — will likely need to be localized.
Although India is home to 125 million English speakers, around 85% of the population doesn’t speak English, and it’s been outpaced by the use of local languages. Hindi grew a massive 66% on the latest CSA Research report on the Top 100 Online Languages, mostly due to mobile web penetration, government investment and other initiatives on the subcontinent, and this set the pace for all Indic languages.
On the international front, there have been proposals to add Hindi to the list of official languages of the United Nations. If approved, all UN documentation will have to be provided in this language.
In conclusion, India’s demographics alone provide a major consumer and business supplier, generating future demand of localized content.
Keep an eye on the fast-rising
Regardless of which languages you choose, you will eventually have to add new ones as your content formats multiply and your pool of potential customers grows across the globe.
Keep in mind this list is purely indicative of what we expect is most globally relevant for 2017. If your company has a narrower target market, your own ‘top 10’ could include different languages that didn’t make it into our list. For example, EU legislation leads to a phenomenon whereby a language like Italian, which didn’t make it into our top 10, is currently far more translated to than Arabic. Nonetheless, Arabic-speaking countries represent a greater emerging potential for business opportunities and a growing consumer base.
The language landscape is also evolving permanently. For example, the latest Consumer Barometer shows that Malaysia has the highest number of people who use smartphones as their primary device to connect to the Internet. So, Malay could soon be considered a popular language for mobile app translation.
Similarly, the same CSA Research mentioned previously showed Thai, Indonesian and Persian are rising fast due to increasing Internet adoption pushed by their respective countries’ governments and should become relevant for businesses providing marketing content online very soon.
To optimize business results with global audiences and gain the first market advantage, the choice of target languages is crucial and not always an easy or obvious decision.
Remember that your own market research should come first. Also, your target audience should heavily influence what languages you decide to include in your translation and localization strategy.