The Future of Language in Online Business

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The English language is valuable all over the world. It’s an official language of the UN, EU, and NATO, and it’s the most widely used language online. 1.5 million people speak it, a number projected to increase to over 2 billion by 2020. And although English isn’t used locally in many countries, it may even be the most beneficial language for global companies—especially in international industries like travel and tourism.

Those who don’t speak English, of course, are lost on companies that don’t accommodate other languages. This is especially problematic online. The dominance of English on the web has declined in the last few decades, from 80 percent in the 90s to 45 percent in the mid-2000s. Research also suggests that 72 percent of consumers only browse and buy from websites in their own language, and 56 percent consider information in their own language more important than a product’s price.

These trends indicate that, at least in the digital world, English won’t remain as universal as we’ve known it. Not only are more purchases being made online, but the increasing reach of Mandarin and Spanish, skyrocketing populations of mobile consumers, and the British EU referendum has pushed other languages to the forefront.

The mobile-first Indian market

India has now overtaken China as the world’s largest market and continues to grow by 7.3 percent per year. One of the factors fueling growth is mobile adoption. Though only 22 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2015, by 2020, India will become the world’s third-largest smartphone market and home to 750 million smartphone owners.

The challenge for companies that plan to tap into this new consumer group is India’s linguistic diversity. Providing online services in the country’s 22 major languages is now a commercial necessity for leaders in the ecommerce space.

The robust Chinese economy

With a population of 1.3 billion, more people learn English in China than in any other nation. However, of the country’s seven main dialects, Mandarin is by far the most prevalent. The Chinese government is pushing even traditionally Cantonese speaking areas (such as Hong Kong and Macau) to speak Mandarin, while the language also grows more common in other Asian countries.

China’s economy and global standing has seen exponential growth over the last several decades, and is becoming South East Asia’s top trading partner. Experts believe that, as companies conduct more and more business in renminbi rather than in US dollars, Mandarin will overtake English—while others believe bilingualism is the way forward.

The popularity of Spanish

Second only to Mandarin in the global number of native speakers is Spanish. Ahead of Spain, the US and Mexico have the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world. The US alone, which currently has 41 million native and 11.6 million bilingual native speakers, may have 138 million by 2050.

Many countries have identified Spanish as the most important language for their schools to learn, while experts see the global interest in Spanish as an indication of economic shifts. Studies show that bilateral trade increases by almost 300 percent when conducted in Spanish, which suggests companies looking to expand into fast-growing Latin American markets have critical moves to make.

The fallout from Brexit

A huge trading partner to the UK, US, and China, the European Union is another economy to watch. But Brexit threw the validity of English into question. In the UK’s absence, Ireland and Malta are the only EU nations whose official language is English, but they make up only 1 percent of the EU’s total population of 300 million.

Rumors hinted the EU would change its official language to French or German, but English will remain for now. As for UK-based businesses, there has never been a better opportunity for global expansion.

What does the future look like?

All in all, it’s hard to imagine any one language as dominant. The world becomes more connected every day, the fundamental human desire to be understood is as strong as ever, and technology is making amazing things possible in multilingual communication.

That doesn’t mean the English language will lose its value completely. English is not the future language of business, but it is one of them. Global organizations will simply need to reposition their messaging according to evolving customer needs—and that means becoming multilingual.

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