Language focus | 07.06.2016

English – Still the Language of the Internet?

It’s a widespread belief that English is the dominant language of the online world. As English-speaking developers and inventors have largely been credited with inventing everything we know today as ‘the Internet’, and places like America’s Silicon Valley have always been the home of Internet giants and tech start-ups, the idea of English dominating online is something most people take for granted.

English

But how true is that really?

For a long time, English was certainly the lingua franca of the online world – that’s to say, the common language adopted by those who don’t share a native language – not to mention all the technical jargon, cyber-speak and chatroom acronyms that not only changed English as we know it, but made their way into common parlance in other languages too. The fact that English was considered for much of the 20th century (and probably still today) as the lingua franca of politics and international trade only serves to reinforce its dominance as more and more communications move online. However, there’s strong evidence to suggest that the English era is on shakier ground than you might think.

Here at The Translation People, we translate websites – as well as lots of content destined for use on websites – on a daily basis. That got us thinking: what is the true linguistic landscape of the internet nowadays, and is English still at the forefront of the cyber world?

A study[1] conducted in mid-2015 ranks the top ten languages of the internet (in terms of the number of pages written in those languages) as follows:

Internet by Content Language
1. English55.5%
2. Russian5.9%
3. German5.8%
4. Japanese5.0%
5. Spanish4.6%
6. French4.0%
7. Chinese2.8%
8. Portuguese2.5%
9. Italian1.9%
10. Polish1.7%

 

Jump forward a year, and English has already fallen to 53.6%, down 1.9% in just twelve months.

Those figures aren’t jaw dropping in that English is the outright winner, but its dominance has been falling year after year as more and more content is created in other languages, especially in Eastern European, Asian and African languages. Looking at this brief snapshot, it does beg the question of where the other big players are (such as Arabic, as well as South and East Asian languages), given their number of native speakers. So whilst it still seems that English has a strong foothold, its outlook is looking poorer as time goes on.

If we change our standpoint, viewing the number of actual internet users by language[2] around the world, the picture starts to look a little different:

Internet Users by Native Language (millions of users)
1. English872.9
2. Chinese704.5
3. Spanish256.8
4. Arabic168.1
5. Portuguese131.9
6. Japanese114.9
7. Russian103.1
8. Malaysian98.9
9. French97.2
10. German83.7

 

Let’s take the example of Chinese. With 704.5 million estimated Internet users whose native tongue is Chinese, but a mere 2.8% of global content online in this language, the return on investment and target market for companies who decide to localise their online presence into Chinese is potentially immense. The same can also be said of Arabic speakers, who don’t even feature in the top ten content languages, as well as Spanish, Portuguese, and Malaysian: they are all huge markets with massive potential, but there is a massive disparity between the number of users and native content available to them.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that it’s no longer a customer-focused option for multinational companies and brands to simply rely on English. Imagine two global companies selling the same goods or services to the same foreign market: company A has a fully localised web-presence which is sensitive to local customs and business practices, whereas company B chooses to rely on the old misconception that English is the lingua franca online. Company B’s initial cost savings will result in a missed market of potentially millions, but more importantly it suggests a company which makes assumptions and doesn’t concern itself with a customer’s best interests.

We hope we’ve given you an insight into the linguistic makeup of the internet, just how much it is changing, and why it’s important not to rest on the old adage that English is king. There are huge markets out there with untapped potential. We’re passionate about communicating across cultures and helping people understand texts in their native tongue, so we can’t wait to see what the future holds for the linguistic landscape of the online world and helping out on that journey!

[1] Web Technology Surveys (2016) Retrieved 30 May 2016, from https://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/all
[2] Internet Word Stats (2015) Retrieved 30 May 2016, from https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm

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