Changing the World Wide Web, One Language at a Time


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Article ImageI grew up in Ukraine and studied English in school every day from age 7. Speaking English fluently was by far the most valuable skill I acquired during my school career. It provided access to better education and a wider range of career opportunities. It enabled professional development beyond what my own country and my native language could offer.

When I built my first website in 1995, it was in English and in Ukrainian. Back then, 80% of all online content was in English, and I was determined to fit in with this trend. I wanted my website to be accessible to anyone in the world, and going global meant writing in English.

Fast-forward 20 years, English is still the most-studied second language in the world and the most popular language online. More people speak and understand English today than ever before. This might give an impression that publishing useful, usable content in English is a good strategy to acquire new customers globally, but is this really the case? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Only 25.3% of all internet users speak English, and the majority of online buyers (60%) won’t purchase from a website that’s not in their native language. By contrast, adding one of the top nine languages (Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Korean, and Italian) to English will increase your organization’s presence by 2.4% to 21%. A webpage in 23 languages will reach 90% of global web users.

“Global audiences need content in a language that it can understand, otherwise whatever you do is irrelevant to them and you will miss opportunities to expand your outreach,” says Yousef Elbes, multilingual communications manager at WHO (World Health Organization). Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish were established as official languages at WHO by a World Health Assembly resolution in 1978. Multilingualism at WHO is not a matter of choice; it’s a policy.

“Any organization that hopes to reach new customers needs to consider localization,” Seth Gottlieb, a content management analyst, points out. “New markets represent new opportunity. Conversely, incursions by competitors from other markets present new threats to your home territory. Given the time we spend obsessing over the smallest aspects of user experience, it makes no sense to force prospective customers to struggle with a language that they don’t feel comfortable using.” 

Although the case for a multilingual digital presence is clear, adding languages multiplies the complexity and cost of maintaining a website. Delivering an effective international presence can be broken down into three broad categories:

• Global content—content translated to different languages and available in different regions

• Regional content—content adapted to accommodate regional preferences and specifics (such as currency and delivery information)

• Local content—content unique to a particular region

This categorization doesn’t reduce the amount of work involved, but it creates structure and emphasizes the need for a range of skills required for successful delivery.

“Audiences in different markets have different content needs and tastes,” says Gottlieb. “Translating all of your source language content not only clutters the experience for readers who have no use for it all, it is also expensive. For each piece of source language content, you need to decide whether it should be available for each market you support. Some content will need to be adapted beyond a direct translation. Some markets will need original content. Despite all these local variances, each site needs to appear cohesive, complete, and consistent. Effectively connecting with different markets requires levels of awareness, strategy, and organization that are far above what is required for monolingual publishing.”

At the end of the day, it’s companies that put the multilingual requirement at the heart of their strategy that reach the widest global audience. Google’s search page is available in more than 100 languages, Wikipedia has more than 300 language editions, and the most translated website in the world is Jehovah’s Witnesses (jw.org), with extraordinary linguistic diversity of more than 900 languages and dialects. If you want to engage with people around the world, you need to speak their language. There is no shortcut.

Even when the content isn’t text and doesn’t need translating in the literal sense, the challenges still remain. Suitsupply is a men’s fashion brand, with stores in 24 countries and localized websites in 14 languages. It is shipping to 180 countries across the globe. Its recent marketing campaign, “Find your perfect fit,” features gay men holding hands and kissing. Even though the photography and video at the core of this campaign don’t require translating per se, the fact that this content is perceived differently in different countries cannot be ignored. When Fokke de Jong, the founder and CEO of Suitsupply, was asked about the potential risks of running this campaign in countries where LGBT+ communities are not accepted, he admitted that “there is potential for negative impact, especially in countries where we have a significant presence, that are known for contrasting viewpoints.” The campaign ran in most countries where Suitsupply has a presence—with the exception of Russia and the United Arab Emirates—and generated strong reactions (both positive and negative) on social media.

Expanding into new markets and multilingual communication is no longer a choice; it’s the only way to remain relevant in today’s global world. Organizations that have been slow to adopt a multilingual approach increasingly miss out on the opportunities for growth.   


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