The world has over 7,000 living languages. But not every job needs to be translated into all 7,000! Selecting the right languages to translate your organization’s message, products, and services is a strategic decision, based on your global, regional and local strategies.

At e2f, with well over a decade worth of experience, we often get asked to help customers decide how many, and specifically which of the global languages they should localize their works into. Depending on your regions of operation, you might have a set basket of languages to operate in certain markets.

Regional Considerations

For many global firms, there is a basket of about 20 popular global languages that account for a majority of the global population. 

For instance, in North America, you will find English (US), Spanish (Mexico/Latin America), and French (Canadian) are often essential.

In South America, you have Spanish, of course, but also its regional variants, and, of course, Portuguese for Brazil.

Translating for Europe may be the most complex decision of all. In Europe, the common acronym FIGS stands for the Western European mainstays of French, Italian, German and Spanish. Yet you also have the Nordic languages (Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian), the Central European languages (Czech, Polish, Hungarian), and Eastern European languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian, the languages of the Baltic States and the Slavic languages of the Balkans. Not to mention Dutch, Turkish, Portuguese, Greek… Get the picture?

A similarly deliberate analysis has to be considered for Asia-Pacific, where Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dominate East Asia, but you also have languages from Tagalog for the Philippines, Malay and Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, and more for South East Asia.

You also have a myriad of languages across South Asia, the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), not to mention Sub-Saharan Africa.

Support “Lingua Franca” or Native Language?

The next consideration is whether you want to speak to your audience in their natively-fluent language, or whether certain predominant national, regional, or international languages may suffice. For instance, English is the first language of 400 million persons around the world (what is known as “L1” fluency). But it is spoken and understood as a second language (“L2” fluency) by many times more, making the global English-language market around 2 billion people. However, this ignores the vast majority of humanity, because 5.4 billion more people around the world do not speak any English.

Likewise, Arabic is the native language of 295 million, and because of its prevalence across the Islamic world, it is understood by a total of 585 million. However, that leaves out the majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, who may speak a myriad of other languages.

In India, Hindi (Hindustani) is the primary language for 258 million, and is understood by another 120 million more. According to a 2001 census, the total number of Indian Hindi speakers may be as high as 422 million. Regardless, relying on Hindi alone leaves out the majority of India’s 1.25 billion population. Though English is also an official language in India, a government survey found only a few hundred thousand cite English as their first language, and about three quarters of India’s population did not speak any English.

Even in the United States, 60 million people, about 20% of American households, do not speak English at home.

It is truly a strategic decision for each company as to whether they wish to simply be understood by any language held in common by their global audience, or if they want to appeal to an audience in their natively-fluent language.

B2B and B2C Considerations

Business-to-business marketers all-too-often defer to international lingua franca languages, such as English. While this may often suffice for certain international markets, or certain classes of users, at times they may still require localization to appeal to key markets, for regulatory reasons, or even to reach key decision makers.

Conversely, consumer products often rely upon hitting consumers in their natively-fluent language, thus the need to cater to languages of key demographics and target audiences. Common Sense Advisory has warned marketers for over a decade that “more than half our sample (52.4%) buys only at websites where the information is presented in their language. More than 60 percent of consumers in France and Japan told us they buy only from such sites.” For complex products, such as financial services, the percentage of consumers who wanted information in their native language soared far higher, above 80%.

e2f Can Help

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to translation and localization. So contact us at [email protected], and we can help you sort through your options and priorities. If your company requires any specific language outside of the basket of typically-common translations, please let us know! We have presence and relationships across five continents so you never know what we can accommodate until you ask.