The 16 languages that you’ll need to support by 2022

8 min read
Artwork by Bruno Silva

Back in 1997, the same year Titanic hit the theatres (and the iceberg), 80% of all pages on the World Wide Web were in English. Fast forward to 2018, and that’s a whole different story.

Sure, we may still be arguing about the fact that both Jack and Rose should have survived the sinking ship— if only Rose would have shared that piece of wood — but we’re actually doing that in a lot more languages than 20 years ago.

Let's be honest. There was room for two.
Let’s be honest. There was room for two.

The reason why that’s happening is because today only 20% of all online content is in English.

And you can pretty much imagine what that means for companies around the world. There’s a whole lot more languages to tackle if you want to be global, and if you ignore this you’re probably losing money.

Language barriers = barriers to business

For instance, in the UK, the government even calculated that the assumption that everyone speaks English, costs their economy £48 billion every year, or 3.5% of GDP.

And in the European Union, only 16% of retailers are selling online to other EU countries right now — what a missed opportunity for the remaining 84%. And just 15% of our fellow European consumers buy online from other EU countries.

There is a vast, exponentially growing mountain of digital content which is building up in all of these silos of nationalities, culture, and yes, language. And yet, a common language in business increases trade flows by 44%.

But if the English language is slowing down, and if we should all be multilingual to increase revenues, which languages should we keep an eye on?

Which languages are taking over the world?

Well, it’s not like English is going to be overthrown on this list. It’s just that there’s very little room for the English language to expand its presence online — we’ll talk about that in a second.

On the other hand, other parts of the world are witnessing significant growth which will most likely mean that we’ll need to speak their language in order to tap into a big share of the global market.

According to Common Sense Advisory’s latest report, we’ll be able to reach 90% of total online GDP with 16 languages in 2022 (these are the so called Tier One languages):

But why are these languages taking over? And what does this actually mean for global businesses?

A closer look into the languages of the future

As years go by, the world keeps on changing at breakneck pace. Shifts in population, economic growth, and internet penetration, can all determine whether a specific language is more widely spoken than others.

For instance, if you look at internet penetration the numbers can be quite astonishing. Common Sense Advisory predicts that by 2022, in the 187 countries they analysed, 59% of their population will have access to internet. However, the interesting fact is that this growth is primarily concentrated in emerging economies, which explains why languages such as Simplified Chinese are on the rise.

Now, what can these trends tell us about the languages of the future?

English is close to saturation

Earlier this year, Nicholas Ostler, the author of Empires of the Word and The Last Lingua Franca, and chair of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, asked a fundamental question in an article for The Guardian: “Have we reached peak English in the world?”

Well, it sure looks like it, and Ostler is definitely not the only one to think so.

I mean, let’s not avoid the obvious. The use of the English language is greater than ever, and far more widespread than any other language in the world. In most countries it is the first foreign language to learn and according to the British Council it is spoken by 1.75 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population.

The internet in 1997 — 80% English-language content

But will English keep its well established position in the future? Probably not.

And the numbers prove it. There’s very little room for English to expand. It is getting closer to saturation and its additional US$6.2 trillion of eGDP will not be enough to keep it from sinking, as the rest of the world grows its market shares.

The internet in 2018, only 20% English-language content

So where will this turn of events take us? The answer most likely relies in the fast paced and emerging economies of Asia, South America and Africa.

Asia is rising and Europe declining

Of all the reports I’ve read, everyone seems to agree that Asia is not only growing as a market but also in language. Simplified Chinese is now one of the most used languages in the world, and it will keep on growing. If by 2022 it will hold 13% of online GDP, by 2027 it will increase 4% and reach 17% of online GDP, as languages like English keep declining.

However, it’s not just Chinese, there are many other asian languages that are also climbing up the ladder. Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Indonesian, and others that are widely spoken in countries like India or Pakistan will keep on rising in the near future.

And this opens a lot of doors for companies around the world. These untapped markets are indeed a great opportunity for enterprises to get in at the early stages of hyper-growth.

But while this happens in Asia, in Europe things are moving in the opposite direction. Even though Europe will see economic growth in the upcoming years, the emergence of Asian languages will most likely take some of the space that until now was predominantly European. Languages such as Finish, Norwegian, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish or Swedish, will drop two or more spots in the rankings.

Portuguese and Spanish: the exceptions to the rule

In spite of all this, there are still two European languages that widely spoken elsewhere, in South America, which are still gaining momentum. That’s the case of Spanish and Portuguese.

Spanish will finally surpass Japanese, and climb up to the third position by 2022, right after Simplified Chinese and English. And that’s no wonder, as it is the official language of 20 countries and it is estimated that more than 572 million people speak Spanish worldwide.

Although Portuguese is not as strong as the language of Don Quixote, it is nonetheless one of the most spoken languages in the world, with over 260 million speakers. By 2022, following Common Sense Advisory’s report, Portuguese will even surpass Italian, as the seventh most relevant language, with an online audience of almost 5%.

What does this mean for global enterprises?

This means that being multilingual is no longer a choice. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should support all the languages we mentioned above at once. You need to think strategically and understand which should be your market priorities.

You need to understand the markets you’re about to enter and be prepared to support the most complex languages. For instance, languages such as Devanagari, Bangla, and Tamil, which are used in India, have complex writing systems so it might not be easy to work with them if you’re not aware of what that involves.

But in the end it all has to do with your customers and the markets you’re in.

How can you define your language priorities?

In short, the answer to that question relies on understanding where your customers are coming from. IP data, emails and other contacts will give you a good picture of your language needs.

But not only that. Look at your own data and see your users behaviour. Do people who live in Russia spend more on your website than those who live in Spain? Or is it the other way around? Do your customers speak a second language?

These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself before you decide on which languages to support. For example, in some territories, a second language is so pervasive that the problem is dramatically mitigated: in the Netherlands and Israel, for example, English is very widely spoken. But in countries like China, not so much.

But then again, these are questions only you can answer. After all, nobody knows your business better than you.

In the end, I hope this article helps you avoid any obstacles you may encounter as you sail through troubled international waters — including icebergs.

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