Chris Hutchins's avatar

Chris Hutchins

November 28, 2016

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?

Chris Hutchins's avatar

Chris Hutchins

November 28, 2016

Few things unite people more authentically and resonantly than a common language. Language forges and enhances human connections in our day-to-day lives in powerful ways-both in the real world and online.

Take website traffic and transactions. Time and again, it's been illustrated that consumers invest far more trust, and spend more, on sites that literally speak their preferred language.

Companies based in mostly monolingual markets don’t realize what a big role language plays for online global consumers. Indeed, as a columnist for The Guardian recently wrote, “(L)anguage profoundly affects your experience of the Internet. It guides who you speak to on social media and often how you behave in these communities. It determines how much—if any—information you can access on Wikipedia. … Far from infinite, the Internet, it seems, is only as big as your language.”

Consumers invest far more trust, 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. At the time, this wasn’t particularly surprising; the Internet was initially developed in the U.S. and UK, and most of its original content was written for users based in those countries. The mature infrastructures in these markets also helped ensure a rapid civilian adoption of the Internet. This further fueled the language’s representation in online content.

As company executives rise to meet the demands of their shareholders to expand their businesses and increase revenues, serving consumers in global online markets represents a powerful—and affordable—way to do just that.

But based on our experience and research, it's clear that execs can't serve these new global consumers with English-only websites. The Internet has radically changed since the mid-90s. So has the world.

Companies must change right along with them.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Why are English-only sites for global markets a no-go in today’s online marketplace? For starters, international Internet access continues to skyrocket, which has greatly influenced Internet content. This year, the number of Internet users worldwide hit 3.5 billion, an astonishing 58% increase from 2.21 billion in 2015. Much of this growth is happening in emerging markets, where English is spoken as a secondary or tertiary language. (Or in some countries, barely at all.)

Indeed, ten years ago, the Internet’s quantity of English-language content dropped from 80% to about 45%. These days, some experts believe the percentage of English content is even smaller—perhaps even less than 40%—thanks in great part to the rapid global adoption of social media, which empowers consumers to communicate online in their languages of choice, from their devices of choice. In developing markets, this often means via mobile and smartphones.

The Internet’s quantity of English-language content has dropped from 80% to less than 40%.

A 2011 study revealed that the number of non-English website pages rapidly expanded from 2001 to 2011. The use of English online increased during that time, but was wildly outpaced by the growth of Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. Indeed, one author’s research revealed that 20 years ago, over 80% of online users were native English speakers. That stat had dropped to about 27% by 2010.

More recent statistics jibe with that trend. It’s now clear that Chinese is currently the second most-common language used online. (In fact, since 2000, the number of Chinese-speaking Internet users has increased by a jaw-dropping 2,227%. In comparison, the number of English-speaking users has grown by about 570% in the same timeframe.) Spanish represents a distant third, with Arabic representing a rapidly-growing fourth.

This is especially true on the social web. Social media usage—which is often conducted in a market’s locally-preferred language—is sky-high in global markets where English isn’t spoken widely, or is spoken alongside many other local languages. Take China and India, which lead the world in Internet and social media usage. In five years, nearly half of China’s population—by that time, it’ll be 1.4 billion people—will be using social networks. China is not an English-first market. In India, nearly 90% of residents don’t speak English.

(According to The Wall Street Journal, nearly 50% of Indian online consumers consume content in their local language. Hindi is the market’s most widely-read language, but publishers are also providing online content in Tamil, Marathi and other local languages. “There is no reason they would switch to English just for the Internet,” the WSJ story said.)

Studies suggest that about half of all Twitter tweets are written in languages other than English—with Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Indonesian consumers being the most active. These users in different markets often leverage Twitter (and other social networks) in different ways, thanks to the unique characteristics of their written languages. For instance: Since the Chinese written language often uses single characters to represent entire words or concepts, Chinese Twitter users can deliver more information in 140 characters than users of other languages can.

Social media usage is sky-high in global markets where English isn’t spoken widely.

The Business Impact

Does this ever-evolving linguistic landscape impact global online business? You bet it does. According to an oft-quoted 2006 survey by Common Sense Advisory, 73% of respondents had a high propensity to buy in their native language. Eight years later, the group conducted a larger-scale study. Consumer demand had increased to 75%.

Further, 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,” the Common Sense Advisory found.

This behavior isn’t exclusive to emerging markets. A 2011 study of European online consumers revealed that when visiting a website available in several languages, 90% of respondents always chose their own language. Nearly 20% said they never visit websites in languages that aren’t available in their language. And over 40% said they said they never purchase products and services in other languages.

The Common Sense Advisory also found that over half of global consumers are willing to pay more for a product if they can obtain information about that product in their preferred language, online.

Experts estimate that 80% percent of online content is available in these 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, German, French, Russian and Korean. There is nearly identical alignment between these languages and the Top 10 languages based on purchasing power, according to Common Sense Advisory data.

Global consumers will pay more for a product if they can obtain online information in their preferred language.

Wrapping Up

The takeaway is clear: English hasn’t been the lingua franca of the Internet for many years. As Internet access increases worldwide, more and more markets (and their locally preferred languages) will become increasingly important players on the world stage.

To remain competitive on a global scale, companies from nearly every industry must provide online experiences that are in-market, in-language, and accessible on these local consumers' devices of choice. Embracing these inclusive best practices is mission critical to achieving international business success.

Would you like to learn more about the changing landscape of the global web, and how your business can leverage language, savvy in-market marketing and more to increase company revenue in 2017 and beyond? Contact us for more information.


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