Back in 1997, the same year Titanic hit the theaters, 80% of all pages on the World Wide Web were in English. Fast forward to 2020, and it’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 23 years ago.

The reason why that’s happening is because today only 20% of all online content is in English. This means that being multilingual is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for companies around the world. 

Language barriers = barriers to business

It’s easy to assume everyone speaks English. But it can’t be good for business. 

For instance, in the UK, the government calculated that the assumption that everyone speaks English, costs their economy £48 billion every year(62 billion dollars) — 3.5% of their GDP.

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

But if the English language is losing its strength, which languages should we keep an eye on this decade?

Which languages are taking over the world?

According to Common Sense Advisory’s latest report, these are the top 14 online languages:

  1. English
  2. Simplified Chinese
  3. Spanish
  4. Japanese
  5. German
  6. French
  7. Russian
  8. Arabic
  9. Portuguese
  10. Italian
  11. Korean
  12. Dutch
  13. Hindi
  14. Chinese traditional

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

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 in the upcoming years, in the 187 countries they analyzed, 59% of their population will have access to internet. And 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

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.

But will English keep its dominant 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.

Asia is rising and Europe declining

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 percentage points 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 growing 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 in the next couple of years, 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.

Even if 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. And according to Common Sense Advisory’s report, Portuguese will even surpass Italian, as the ninth most relevant language, with an online audience of almost 5%.

What does this mean for global enterprises?

This means that providing a multilingual customer experience 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 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 behavior. 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.