The Importance of Language Online and the New Global Highway

Posted by: in Analytics, Pre-Commerce, Social Media Insights & Trends on January 29, 2011

As the world nears the magic number of 2 billion people online (now 1.966 billion), I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the importance of language.  Said another way, if you work for a global company and you want to reach all of your customers online, it may be time to strengthen the language capabilities of your team.

Today, the top ten languages in the world reach 82.6 percent of people online (1.6 billion).  English is the leading language of the world with 536 million people online, according to InternetWorldStats.  China is second with 444 million. It’s not a surprise that English is leading, since approximately 53 countries have English as one of their official languages.  As an fyi, these stats are created when one language is assigned to each person.  They do not account for all languages that a given person speaks.  I know, I know…..but that data doesn’t exist today….we work with what we’ve got. 

The top ten are English (536 million); Chinese/Mandarin (444); Spanish (153); Japan (99); Portugese (82); German (75); Arabic (65); French (59); Russian (59); and Korean (39).   Overall, 4.4 billion people of our 6.8 billion citizens of the world, speak these languages, so penetration is still low for the top 10.   In fact, when you look worldwide, the two highest volume languages have low penetration rates, e.g. English at 42 percent and Chinese/Mandarin at 32.6 percent.  This is in contrast to Japanese at 78.2 percent and German at 78.6 percent. 

As languages take on increasing importance, it will be critical for companies to think in terms of building their own Global Highway which contains individual language networks.   For example, for Chinese/Mandarin, the network includes people in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.  For German, it includes Germany, Austria, Liechentstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland.  And for Spanish, we have 21 countries where Spanish is the main language.  Increasingly, language will slowly erode the geographic boundaries, in terms of information sharing.  I fully expect culture to remain important locally for country-specific conversations and decisions, but for broader based information, language will often lead in the future.  Think of your compay’s main story…..that’s broad-based.   

In the years ahead, today’s global company will be able to describe what their Global Highway looks like, in terms of how they reach their customers across language and how they differentiate between content and conversations that should reach a language network and those that should be focused purely on a local level.  Suffice it to say that we are in the midst of building out these types of “new roads” and triggers. 

The only difference in how we will build online roads is that you won’t see 3-4 of us hanging out on the side of the road holding a sign and having a break. There’s way too much work to do.

All the best, Bob

By: Bob Pearson

Bob is the President of W2O Group, an independent network of digital communications and marketing companies. He is an author, frequent speaker and instructor for Rutgers center for management development. After the success of his book Pre-Commerce, Bob is currently working on a new book on the future of media titled Storytizing that will be available in 2014. Prior to W2O Group, Bob worked as VP of Communities and Conversations at Dell to develop the Fortune 500’s first global social media function -- an industry-leading approach to the use of social media, as highlighted in the best seller, GroundSwell. Before Dell, Bob was Head of Global Corporate Communications and Head of Global Pharma Communications at Novartis Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, where he served on the Pharma Executive Committee. He also serves on a variety of Boards in health and technology. Highlights include serving as an original member of the P&G digital advisory board and being appointed by the Governor of Texas to serve as chair and vice chair of the emerging technology fund for the State of Texas.

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One Response

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  1. The statistics about global languages are staggering. But, let’s cut the quick, it’s no different than “Think Globally, Act Locally”.  An adage as old (likely) as pharma’s half-hearted attempt to crack the code of local engagement. 

    I read the closing line about not finding “3-4 of us hanging out on the side of the road holding a sign and having a break” as a fun mix of sarcasm and stating the obvious. Fact is the language/local/cultural barriers *ARE* signposts telling pharma communicators which way to the money. Juxtapose the need for signposts with pharma’s inertia in capitalizing on the signposts and we have ourselves the classic Gordian Knot.   

    Consider for a moment how many agencies (pr, marketing, digital, etc) profess to have global capabilities while selling “man on the ground” relevance for local flavor and implementation. Now consider how few deliver on that sales pitch. Suffice it to say, if more delivered pharma would have cracked this language code years ago and we’d be debating something else in its place. Collectively, we’re no closer to solving this dilemma just because we’re in an age of digital worship.  The problem existed well before the advent of the Internet.  Sadly, we just have more vehicles with which to miss the mark.   

    We have an intractable problem – an old, intractable problem. Getting distracted by thinking it’s a new problem accomplishes little. What’s needed is Alexander and bold strokes. 

    That’s a conversation worth having. 


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