Is English Still the ‘Lingua Franca’ of the Internet?
For years, companies have served global consumers exclusively with English-language websites. Have they been getting it wrong all this time?
Language enhances human connections and shapes our day-to-day lives in powerful ways-both in the real world and online. In the global marketplace, customers invest far more trust in, and spend more on, websites that literally speak their preferred languages.
Yet many major companies are just now beginning to appreciate the vital role language plays for online global customers. Not only does it govern our online conversations and behavior, it also limits what information we access.
Customers invest far more trust in, and spend more on, sites that literally speak their preferred language.
Twenty years ago, researchers determined that about 80% of the Internet’s content was published in English—not surprising, given that the Internet was initially developed in the U.S. and UK, and was rapidly adopted in those countries.
These days, businesses need more than English-only websites if they hope to connect effectively with global customers. The Internet and the world have changed radically since the mid-90s. To remain competitive, companies must keep pace.
That Was Then, This Is Now
The dramatic increase in Internet access over the past decade has greatly influenced online content. The number of Internet users worldwide is around 3.6 billion, up nearly 60% from the 2.21 billion users reported in 2015. Much of this growth is happening in emerging markets, where English is spoken as a secondary language, if at all.
Between the mid-90s and mid-2000s, English-language content dropped from 80% to about 45% of total online content, with some experts placing it at less than 40%. This trend was fueled by the global adoption mobile and smartphone technology, and the emergence of social media.
A 2011 study revealed that over the decade, the number of non-English website pages exploded, especially in Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. Chinese is currently the second-most common language used online, increasing by a staggering 2,227% since 2000. Spanish represents a distant third, with Arabic a fast-growing fourth.
The decreasing percentage of English content is readily apparent on social media. China and India currently lead the world in Internet and social media usage. By 2023, nearly half of China’s population will be using social networks. China is not an English-first market, and in India, nearly 90% of residents don’t speak English.
Studies suggest that about half of all Twitter posts are written in languages other than English—with Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Indonesian consumers being most active.
Social media usage is sky-high in global markets where English isn’t spoken widely.
The Business Impact
This ever-evolving linguistic landscape has a powerful impact on global online business. According to a 2006 survey by Common Sense Advisory, 73% of respondents were more likely to buy in their native language. Eight years later, the group conducted a larger-scale study. Consumer demand had increased to 75%.
The 2014 survey found that nearly 60% of respondents either "spend more time on sites in their own language than they do in English-or boycott English-language URLs altogether." In addition, global consumers expressed a willingness to pay more for items if descriptive information was provided in their preferred language.
This trend extends beyond emerging markets. A 2011 study of European online consumers revealed that when given the choice, 90% of respondents always chose their own language. Nearly 20% said they never visit websites that aren’t available in their language.
Over 40% said they said they never purchase products and services in other languages.
The takeaway is clear: English hasn’t been the lingua franca of the Internet for many years—and as Internet adoption continues to grow worldwide, content in languages other than English will become increasingly vital for business.
To remain competitive on a global scale, companies in every industry must provide online experiences that are in-market, in-language, and accessible to local consumers on their devices of choice. Embracing these inclusive best practices is mission critical to achieving international business success.