English has always dominated the web. Even today, it’s estimated that 55.5% of all web content is in English. However, only around 20% of the world’s population speaks English at all, and just 5% of the world speaks English as a native language. I mean, it makes sense. English was the founding language of the web, after all. But to be a truly inclusive platform, we need to make the internet accessible to people across the world, and we have a long way to go. Read on to see which languages are trending upward, which are trending downward, and the anomaly that is Chinese on the internet.
The Gap Between English and Every Other Language
You can see in these graphs (made by Reddit user Plottingman, based on data from Web Technology Surveys) just how much content English has compared to every other language out there. There’s a huge opportunity here for businesses looking to attract international customers. People want to feel included, and these graphs show that most are not.
People Want Content In Their Native Language
While the diversity of languages on the internet has been growing in recent years, for most people there is still very little content in their native language. Most people prefer reading in their own language, as shown in this e-commerce study by the Common Sense Advisory, where 72% of consumers said they spend all or most of their time on websites in their native language. Not to mention 72% also said they are more likely to buy a product with information in their own language, and 56% said the ability to obtain information in their own language is more important than price.
These numbers are pretty astounding. What that means is, 72% of (non-English speaking) consumers spend most of their time on a very, very small fraction of the web. Anyone selling a product or service online should take this into consideration and keep an eye on the up-and-coming languages and populations of the internet as it continues to diversify. And if you get in early, you can ride that wave for a long time before others catch up, surfing all the way to the bank (pun intended, insert groan here).
Let’s get into the numbers of the most popular and up-and-coming languages. The rankings have been shuffling around in the last 5 years, so we’ll dig into the trends after looking at the numbers, to get an idea of which ones are growing fastest.
Percent of web content, 2011
1. English (57.6%)
2. German (7.7%)
3. Japanese (5%)
4. Chinese (4.6%)
5. Russian (4.1%)
6. Spanish (3.9%)
7. French (3.4%)
8. Italian (2.1%)
9. Portuguese (1.6%)
10. Arabic (1.6%)
Percent of web content, 2015
1. English (55.5%)
2. Russian (5.9%)
3. German (5.8%)
4. Japanese (5%)
5. Spanish (4.6%)
6. French (4%)
7. Chinese (2.8%)
8. Portuguese (2.5%)
9. Italian (2%)
10. Polish (1.7%)
The above is based on web content, whereas in the below image (made by Reddit user UCanDoEat) you can see how that relates to percentage of the internet population (this is based on slightly older data, so the numbers are a bit different). Some weird things are going on with China, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Russian has grown considerably, at a rate of 41.5% since 2011. 61% of the 143.5 million population are connected to the internet, and 28 million Russians have come online since 2010. We can expect the Russian content on the web to grow as more of the country comes online.
750 million people speak Spanish worldwide, and around half of those are native speakers. As South America has come online, so has Spanish content, the share growing by 15.5% since 2011. It’s estimated that only around 50% of the Spanish speaking population is online, so its ranking should only grow in the next 5-10 years as Spanish speakers become more connected and create more content.
The share of Portuguese content on the web has grown by 56% since 2011. As of 2013, only 47% of Portuguese speakers were connected to the internet. At that time, Portuguese speakers made up 4.3% of the internet population and had 2.3% of the content — meaning that they create content in their own language more than any other population. To put that in context, English speakers were 28% of the internet population and had created 55% of the content; Chinese speakers made up 23% of the internet and created only 4.3% of the content. So expect this trend to continue as more Portuguese speakers come online.
The percentage of German content online has decreased by 26% since 2011. Germany is one of the most connected countries in the world — in 2013, 85.7% of the population was online, and it’s surely higher now. Because such a large percentage of their population is already online, we expect their share of online content to drop as other countries add more citizens and content to the web.
Japanese isn’t actually trending downward; it actually hasn’t moved at all since 2011, still holding 5% of the content online. It’s similar to Germany: in 2013, 86.2% of the country was already connected. We can expect Japanese speakers to continue creating a large amount of content relative to their population, but there isn’t much room to grow without adding more Japanese speakers to the web, and soon other languages will start overtaking the language in the rankings.
French has a surprisingly large share of web content, considering how few people speak it compared to other languages (450 million speakers, only 80 million of those native). But it’s an official language of 29 countries, and the country of France is notorious for its language preservation efforts. Between 2011 and 2013, the share of French content online grew by 35%, however, since then, it’s decreased 13%, trending downward even as more of the French population comes online.
What’s going on with Chinese and Arabic?
It’s generally assumed that Chinese is the fastest growing language online. After all, with a population of 1.35 billion (20% of the world population), shouldn’t it be growing like crazy?
In fact, it’s not. From 2011 to 2015, China’s share of content online has decreased 39%. Partly this is due to the fact that the majority of the Chinese population is not online (in December 2013, only 46.6% was connected to the internet). However, at the same time, it’s estimated that 23% of people online are Chinese speakers, which begs the question, if almost a quarter of the web speaks Chinese, why is only 2.8% of the content on the internet in Chinese?
There seems to be no answer to this, and yet people still say that Chinese is the fastest growing language on the web. The Next Web created an infographic in 2010 that concluded: “in five years, Chinese will be the dominant language online.” Needless to say, they were wrong. It seems like people are confusing language with people — yes, a large portion of the internet population are Chinese, but they are creating a tiny amount of content in their native language. Sounds like an opportunity to us!
As it stands, about 650 million Chinese citizens are not online yet, so as they come online, the Chinese content on the web should grow as well. By then, they will dominate the web in terms of sheer population, at least.
Arabic is a similar case, yet there’s an even smaller portion of Arabic speakers online — as of 2013, only 37% of Arabic speakers are connected to the internet. That’s enough people to represent 4.8% of the internet’s population, but as of 2015, Arabic makes up only 0.7% of the content on the internet. Given that over 500 million people speak Arabic worldwide, that’s a pretty small number. And just like Chinese, its share of content has decreased since 2011.
Looking at just the raw numbers, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on with Arabic and Chinese. But because both languages have such a small portion of their speakers connected to the internet and they are two of the most common and fastest growing languages in the world, it’s safe to assume that both languages will begin trending upward at some point — it’s just hard to say when.
Don’t forget about Hindi!
Don’t even get us started on the Hindi language and the Indian population. Nowhere we looked measured Hindi’s share of content, which is just… flabbergasting. Sure, there are many dialects of Hindi, but the standardized version of the language was last estimated to be spoken by 180 million people. Why is it not being measured? Given that the Indian tech and startup scene is killing it, it can’t be that the numbers are too low to be counted. We may have to do some digging and explore this in another blog post.
As they say, content is king. And in a world where more people are connecting to the internet every day, language diversity will be even more important. Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese are continuing to trend upward with no sign of slowing down. If you are targeting customers who speak these languages, it’s worth considering translating your content to better reach and connect with them. And while German, French, and Japanese are trending down, they still represent such a large portion of the online community that it’s worth thinking through your approach to those markets as well. After all, everyone wants to feel like they are a part of something, and speaking to people in their native language is a simple way to do so.
Only time will tell what happens with Chinese and Arabic. But it’s a pretty good bet that sooner rather than later, the tide will turn, and it’s best to be prepared when that happens. Once these languages reach a tipping point it will all happen quickly. And don’t forget about Hindi like many people have seemed to. The Indian population and tech scene is growing like crazy, and it’s foolish to forget that.
As for English, it’s still the clear leader, its share of content decreasing by only 3.6% between 2011 and 2015. It should keep fairly steady, decreasing at a similar rate as the other languages slowly catch up.
Fewer than 3 billion people are connected to the internet. In Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, the majority of people aren’t. As people around the world come online, both the diversity of language and the culture on the web will change. People will need content in their native language to feel like true citizens of the internet, and if you’re conducting business online, you’ll want to be in a place where you can use that to your advantage.
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