In Which Languages Do Today’s Businesses Need to be Fluent?

A Visualisation of the World’s Most Influential Languages

Out of around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide only a handful have reached global prominence, with 90% used by fewer than 100,000 people. The below interactive charts will help you to understand which languages are the most influential, in relation to a variety of factors.

And whilst there are many other issues to consider, translating your business into these languages can help you to reach greater numbers of consumers and compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

You can swipe/drag left and right to see all four data sets, or alternatively use the left/right arrows below.

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Languages with the highest number of native speakers

Fascinatingly, two thirds of the world’s population share only 12 native languages (the language learned from birth or early childhood), making them a powerful way for businesses to reach a huge proportion of global consumers.

Source: Ulrich Ammon, University of Dusseldorf, Die Stellung Der Deutschen Sprache In Der Welt (The Status of the German Language in the World), as cited in The Washington Post Note: Totals include bilingual speakers

Languages spoken in the highest number of countries

Many languages are surprisingly widespread and spoken by people all over the world – both officially and unofficially. For example, there are already around 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US and by 2050, the Spanish-speaking Hispanic market will represent 30% of the population. Significantly, US-based studies including the National Hispanic Consumer Survey suggest that advertising in Spanish can boost the effectiveness of campaigns and customer loyalty.

Source: Used by permission, © SIL 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition. Online Edition.

Languages learned by the highest number of people

Despite trailing behind in terms of native speakers, English is by far the world’s most studied language. This reflects the fact that English is widely accepted as 'the language of global business', with the majority of multinational companies, such as Nokia and Renault, choosing English as their common corporate tongue.

Source: Ulrich Ammon, University of Dusseldorf, Die Stellung Der Deutschen Sprache In Der Welt (The Status of the German Language in the World), as cited in The Washington Post Note: Totals include bilingual speakers

Languages used online by the highest number of internet users

A Gallup survey of language preferences online found that nine out of ten users, when given a choice, would always visit a site in their own language, whilst 42% said they would never purchase products or services in other languages. As a result, translating web content into the most spoken languages on the internet is a worthwhile move for businesses.

Source: Internet World Stats

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Find out more

What makes a language truly influential? Is it those with the most speakers? Those that can reach the most people online? Or, as a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested, those that are the most frequently translated?

The answer is difficult to define. However, as previously stated, of around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide only a small proportion have become globally significant.

So are these ‘significant’ languages the most important for businesses? Logically, it’s true that the more users a language has, the more consumers translated content will be able to reach.

However, as well as factors such as number of speakers, businesses also need to consider a range of other issues. And whilst every company is different, there are some languages that are particularly influential in the business world.

English

It should come as no surprise that English is highly influential on a global scale. For decades, the language has been recognised as ‘the language of global business’, with many major companies adopting an English corporate language strategy to aid international communication.

The need for an international language has always existed – but why has English taken this space?

The answer has little to do with linguistics and everything to do with politics, with the English language historically being taken around the world by the sailors, soldiers, missionaries and traders of the British Empire – a process which was subsequently reinforced by waves of immigration and a rise in influence of the Empire’s most powerful member, the USA.

Chinese

There are a staggering 1.39 billion Chinese speakers around the world. Whilst the language has numerous dialects, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 848 million speakers – making it a hugely prevalent language.

Even those dialects that are less prevalent have huge numbers of speakers. For example, Wu, which is spoken in the financial centre of Shanghai, has more than 70 million speakers (Ethnologue) – making it a valuable potential market.

Spanish

The Spanish language holds huge potential for businesses. Not only is it widely spoken in Central America and South America, arguably two of the most important markets in the world, it’s widespread in emerging economic powerhouses including Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Columbia and Venezuela. And that’s without even mentioning the important market in Spain itself!

Russian

With around 254 million speakers worldwide, there’s no denying that Russian is an influential language. Russia itself is becoming increasingly important in the business world, with countless natural resources and a growing IT sector, whilst Russian is widely spoken in many post-Soviet states with important emerging economies.

Arabic

The world’s fourth most spoken language, Arabic offers huge potential when it comes to reaching consumers. The UAE also has a growing online culture and a steadily expanding economy, making it an exciting prospect for businesses.

German

With 132 million speakers and high online penetration, German is an important language in the global marketplace. Germany also has one of the strongest economies in Europe, and one of the largest economies in the world.

Portuguese

Aside from Portugal, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, which is quickly becoming one of the world’s richest nations, as well as several African nations, including Mozambique and Angola. Consequently, the language is likely to be hugely important for businesses, as we head into the future.

In Which Languages Should Your Business Be Fluent?

When you decide which languages to translate your business into, there is of course more to consider than which ones are the most influential globally (although this is significant too).

It’s important to think about where there’s likely to be a global demand for your products, as well as whether you have the infrastructure in place to deal with overseas expansion.

Before deciding on the suitability of a global market, Dr. Donald R. Lessard, professor of global economics and management professor of engineering systems, Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management suggests asking the following three questions:

  • Is the product relevant? Will it be valuable to consumers and able to compete with local competitors?
  • Is the product appropriable? Is there a risk that a local competitor could copy it and do the same for less?
  • Is the product transferable? Can it be profitably sold in the international market?

The answers to these questions can help you to identify where demand for your products lies. It’s also worth looking at factors such as which countries deliver a significant amount of traffic to your site, as well as carrying out an in-depth market study.

Of the thousands of languages spoken around the world, only a small proportion are considered truly influential. And although there are many other things to consider, translating your business into these languages can help you to compete in the global marketplace.

To find out more about translating your digital content for a global audience, read our eBook below: