Are the FIGS dead?

January 4, 2016

As people in the language business know, FIGS stands for French, Italian, German, Spanish, long considered “The Big 4” when it comes to translation. Traditionally, when people wanted to localize their content for new markets, they turned to these four languages first. After all, they are spoken in many countries, some of which have the largest economies in the world.

But as the world continues to globalize and the internet brings together people from all over the planet, have other languages become more valuable? Some say that the FIGS will be replaced by BRIC—Brazil, Russia, India, China, which account for 40% of the world population. Some say CJK is the next frontier—China, Japan, Korea. (They really missed the mark on the catchy acronym there, didn’t they?)

Needless to say, all of these countries (and languages) are becoming powerhouses in the world if they weren’t already. No one can deny the up-and-comers, and that begs an important question:

Are FIGS still as important as they once were? Or have they been eclipsed by languages spoken in developing countries and regions, like China, India, and the Middle East? We set out to find out.

What we found was that French, German, and Spanish are as important as ever, while Italian is slipping.


The Growth of the Translation Industry

One of the most important things to consider is the crazy rate at which the translation and localization industry is growing. As translation needs go up in demand it’s possible that other languages will begin to eclipse the FIGS.

Because of immigration and globalization, the demand for translation services has never been higher. In fact, it’s recession-proof (at least so far). Even when the world plunged into a recession, the demand for translation remained strong. It’s simply becoming indispensable to businesses, governments, and individuals — it’s becoming an inelastic product, and will only become more so.

As of 2012, Common Sense Advisory estimated the industry at $33.5 billion. The U.S. Bureau of Statistics estimates that translation jobs in the U.S. will grow 46% between 2012-2022, as compared to the average job growth of other occupations at 11%. By the way, in the same study, they mention that demand will remain strong for French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, while demand for Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and Korean translators will continue to grow.

As demand grows, it will become harder for people to find qualified translators, because there just aren’t enough people out there who are up for the job. That’s where technology comes in, and as it improves it will help translators deal with the massive amounts of content and data that is created every day.

Technology like Unbabel’s aids translators so that they can be as efficient as possible—our technology does the heavy lifting, and our humans make sure everything is a-ok and the content reads like the original text. Translation is hard. Great, natural-sounding translation is even harder.

Our technology learns from the mistakes it makes and the feedback the translators provide, and begins to understand how languages—and language pairs—work. This makes less and less work for our editors, so that as an industry we can keep up with the crazy demand that’s only going to get crazier. After all, we all want to give people access to the same products and education and content that we have and make the world’s playing field a bit more level.


A More Level Playing Field

While places like the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, and the UK have most of their population online, in most countries the majority of people aren’t yet online. But of course this is changing. India, Russia, Nigeria, Egypt and the Philippines are adding internet users at a crazy rate — their amount of connected citizens has grown by 10-16% in the past year alone.

And those are just the biggest countries. All over Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East, we’re adding internet users at very high rates (it’s pretty awesome). Here’s the source if you want to check it out, it’s pretty interesting and you can sort the data however you like.

One thing to consider is that in most nations, much of the wealthy, the young, and the educated are already online. These people are likely to speak English—or at least another second language, while people who do not have these privileges may only speak their native language. It’s pointless if they enter a digital world that has nothing for them: no content in their native language, no products they can understand.

This is why it’s increasingly more important to localize our products and content, both for the sake of being good citizens of our planet and for the sake of business.

Something to note: many of these developing countries use French or Spanish as their official language (France is common in Africa, Spanish obviously in Latin America). This makes a strong case for these languages’ demand as the rest of the world comes online.


Unbabel’s Most Common Languages

We thought we’d look at what’s currently in demand for translation. That is, which languages are most commonly translated into (as of now, the original language in most translation is often English). First, we looked at our data. Here’s what we saw:

translation services


We can see that the FIGS are among the most popular languages for our clients. Spanish is the most common at 18% of total words translated when you include both Spain (10%) and Latin American Spanish (8%), while German, French, and Portuguese aren’t far behind.

One thing to note: as our main office is in Portugal, we likely have more demand for Portuguese translation than American translation companies do—however, Portuguese in general is a popular language because of the quickly growing Brazil (in our data, Brazilian Portuguese makes up 8% of translated words, while Portugal Portuguese makes up 5%).

Italian is represented well, as our 5th most popular language to translate to, but based on our research, it seems like Italian’s importance is slipping. We need to do some more digging to see what’s really going on. After all, this is a small sample size of just our own data.


Trends in Language Use Worldwide

A good way to look at the popularity, or power, of a language worldwide is to look at the number of speakers and the number of countries it’s spoken in.

translation services

We put it on one graph so that we can see the cumulative power of a language. Take French: It has only 160 million speakers, making it the 10th most common language, but it’s spoken in a whopping 51 countries. Only English and Arabic are spoken in more countries. French is ingrained into the culture in many countries, meaning it’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. French is also a very popular second language—it’s the most common in 14 regions, behind only English (55).

translation services

Comparing speakers to countries spoken is good benchmark for language popularity as a whole, and future demand can be extrapolated somewhat by the number of countries a language is spoken—for example, let’s look at French again. Many of the 51 countries it’s spoken in are the countries we mentioned before that are just starting to get significant numbers of their population online. As those countries’ internet users grow, the demand for French will grow, too.


How Unicorns Approach Translation and Localization

Since we’re talking about business here, it’s interesting to look at what languages the so-called unicorns use in their products. In case you’re blissfully unaware of what a unicorn is (I’m jealous), it means a private tech company valued at over a billion dollars. Which these days are definitely more common than unicorns.

Unicorn companies average 9.4 languages in their products. The most multilingual unicorns are, in order: Tinder, Uber, Jawbone, and Box with over 30 languages, Pinterest and Airbnb with over 25, and Dropbox and Snapchat with over 20. The most common languages among all unicorns are, in order: English, French, Chinese, German, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, and Korean. This lines up with the trends we’ve seen so far as well as our own data.


Economic Growth and Stability

We can also look at GDP as a forecast of translation demand. As we’ve come out of the recession, many countries’ GDP has started to increase and it can be a good indicator of future growth. The strongest economies are the best places to do business in. The following data is from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. You can find it here.





The five largest economies in the world are: the US, China, Japan, Germany, and France, while the economies that grew the most from 2013-2014 are China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey.

These growth rates can be a useful to estimate what’s ahead. Obviously, China and India are powerhouses. If things continue as they have been, China’s GDP will pass the US’s GDP sooner than you’d think. China hit a few road bumps this year and their economic growth suffered, but they seem to be back on track.

India has also come across a few bumps in the road. Their growth this year is at 7%, which less than predicted, and economists disagree about what’s going on, but regardless, they have the 9th biggest economy in the world, and it’s growing faster than every other country aside from China.

It’s hard to extrapolate language trends from GDP alone, but it’s useful as a rough guide. As economies grow, more citizens come online, disposable income grows, and private sector profits increase.


Government Organizations

A huge factor in language use and trends are the languages that are used for international relations. The United Nations has six official languages: English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian. As long as it remains this way, the importance of these languages (and translation demand) will only grow.

The European Union is one of the most powerful governments in the world. Its members represent a wide variety of languages, but the three procedural languages used for official business are English, German, and French. French is also the only language used for the EU Court of Justice.


The Most Valuable Languages

As noted above, at this point, most people on this planet who are young or well-educated or speak English in some capacity already have internet access. That leaves a large non-English speaking population that will come online within the next 5-10 years.

Developing Countries

China, India, Indonesia, and Korea are growing rapidly and the languages spoken in those countries will become extremely important for international business.


Spain and Mexico are growing at healthy rates, making a good case for continued Spanish language dominance in the world. Even though the economic growth rate of Latin American countries has been dropping in the past few years, Spain and Mexico have the 14th and 15th largest economies in the world, respectively.


French will obviously remain one of the most powerful languages for the foreseeable future. Aside from English it is the most widespread language in the world, for international relations, countries, and individuals alike. As far as we know, it’s the only country that has an official government council for the preservation of the national language. They take the purity of French very seriously.


In addition to being the wealthiest European country, Germany is growing at a healthy, though not exorbitant, rate as well. As we found in our post Top Languages of the Internet, Today and Tomorrow, 5.8% of online content is in German. That may not sound like much, but it comes in third, after Russian (5.9%), and English (55.5%).

People like to visit sites and read content that’s in their native language—in fact, 72% of consumers say they spend all or most of their time online on websites in their native language. 86% percent of German citizens have access to the internet, one of the highest penetration rates in the world. That’s a lot of people who want to read and buy things in German.

Fun fact: Bermuda has the highest percentage of people with internet access at 97%. But that’s only about 65,000 people—that’s about 0.001% of the planet.


We haven’t heard much from Italian in this essay, which is representative of its position as a language itself. Once an important part of FIGS, its relevance and power has begun to drop off—and Italy’s suffering economy doesn’t help.

While French, German, and Spanish are spoken all over the world in both official, business, and personal capacities, Italian has fallen by the wayside. Chinese, Hindi, Persian, and Arabic are quickly becoming more important internationally. As Brazil grows, Portuguese will become more important as well. Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian are all gaining steam as well.

Essentially what it comes down to is this: the world is becoming smaller, and the internet is growing bigger. As more people gain access to the internet, language online will become more diverse. As noted above, currently 55.5% of content online is English, but that number has slowly been going down for years. Other languages have a long way to go to achieve parity but their share of users and content will only increase. It’s pretty exciting.


For a business to succeed with content localization and translation, the most important thing isn’t the FIGS. Not anymore. The most important thing isn’t a language. It’s your customers. It’s your target market. It’s your strategy. What languages you decide to go after shouldn’t depend on someone’s old fashioned idea of world languages. It should depend on your specific business, your specific customer base, and your own goals of what you want to accomplish with international expansion.

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