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Understanding Translation markets

Translation Solutions Ltd. provides translation services in most language pairs. This article goes into detail in the different languages and their markets, but if you are just looking for a translator, you can just check out our prices or ask for a free translation quote.

Internet Language Markets around the World

One of the key principles of marketing is to define, understand and address effectively the right markets. It doesn't get more basic than that.

English is so prevalent, and so "natural", one may be forgiven to think that English is all that really matters these days. After all, more and more people speak English, and kids spend several hours a week learning English in school. And if that wasn't enough, English tops the chart for private tuition, meaning the number of English speakers will most likely continue to grow in the years to come.

But is there a market for your products and services beyond English? Here is a quick overview of the top 10 language markets, which account for over 85% of the world's population.

Note: Translation Solutions Ltd. provide translation services in all the languages listed below. We will be happy to assist you with your translation projects.

This study was realized by Translation Solutions Ltd. and may not be reproduced without explicit authorization.


TABLE OF CONTENTS



A few terms defined

This study uses a few specialized terms, and some of these have been slightly diverted from their original meanings. People familiar with economic/demographic terminology will probably understand them right away, but here are some simple definitions, just in case:

Internet Users: people using the Internet, as opposed to subscribers of an Internet service. For instance, if 3 persons in a family use the same Internet connection, that family contains 3 Internet users and only 1 subscriber.

Language market: a market made of people who speak a specific language, irrespective of the countries they live in. For instance, the French language market is composed of the France, most of Belgium, about a third of Switzerland, part of Canada and some African countries. In this study, I look more specifically at Internet users.

GDP: Gross Domestic Product. This is the US dollar value of all the products and services of a nation. In this study, I have extended the concept to language markets rather than nations. It is useful to evaluate the size of a market's economy.

GDP per capita: "per capita" is a Latin expression and means "per head". The GDP per capita is the GDP divided by the number of people in that market. Usually, the GDP per capita is based on a specific country. Since I am using language markets covering several countries, I use a weighted average of the GDP per capita in each area (weighted means that I take into account the number of people in each market).

Internet penetration/saturation rate: The percentage of people in a country who use Internet. If there are 10 million people in a country and 5 million of them use the Internet; the Internet penetration rate is 50%. This percentage will never reach 100%: 5 years old kids don't use Internet for instance. When a market reaches around 70% Internet usage, it means that almost all adults and teenagers are already online. This is what I mean by saturation: the maximal number of Internet users possible for the market is reached or nearly reached, which means that the market will not grow further.

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Methods, Sources and Assumptions

Rather than look into traditional linguistic data, this study concentrates mainly on the Internet users demographic. Indeed, Internet usage is a fairly good way to differentiate between 'general public' and 'potential customers'. Internet users are old enough to make (or influence) purchase decisions, usually have some purchasing power and can be reached with relative ease, provided you are willing to address them in their own languages.

Which languages? This is the very question we are trying to answer here: which languages will open the right markets for you? How do you maximize ROI (Return On Investment) through translation?

Statistics used in this study were gathered from reliable Internet-based sources, including NetRatings, ITU and Wikipedia. Financial/demographic data were obtained from official sources (World Bank, IMF, CIA). Unless otherwise noted, these statistics were collected and/or released in 2008.

GDP per capita figures used here are nominal figures (not adjusted for the local price indexes), as what we are not interested here in the local purchasing power, but more in the actual dollar amounts available to purchase foreign goods and services.

Statistics have been rounded up and are by nature relatively imprecise. For instance, The IMF, the World bank and the CIA all report different figures for the GDP per capita. However, despite their inherent flaws, these statistics remain reasonably accurate and offer, in my opinion, an interesting outlook on the World's linguistic markets.

The average GDP in each relevant country is calculated, and then multiplied by the total number of Internet users for that language. It's a quick and dirty measure that can be used to paint the big picture in broad strokes, but is too inaccurate for finer analyses.

Another weakness of the financial figures is that they are based on the exchange rates available at the time they were calculated, and these exchange rates may have changed. Intra-European markets are little affected by this issue (France, Italy and Germany use Euro, so there are no significant foreign exchange variations between these markets)

Economic data are particularly significant as they highlight the potential return on investment for translations in each market.

All interpretations and conclusions are my own. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or would like to suggest corrections.

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The English-speaking market (29%)

Unsurprisingly, English is the dominant language on the Internet, by far. Further, English speakers have one of the highest purchasing power in the World (GDP per capita averages nearly USD 41,000 per year per English speaking Internet user).

The combined GDP of all English speaking Web users is over USD 17.6 trillion.

In terms of growth, the number of English speaking users on the Internet has increased by 200% since the year 2000.

What might surprise you, however, is that according to the most recent statistics, English represents only slightly more than 29% of Web users, and that the number of Internet users surfing in other languages has grown at a much faster pace.

In terms of Internet growth, it should be noted that the US and the UK markets are nearly saturated, with 72% and 67% of the population already online, respectively. 76% of Canadians are already online as well as 54% of Australia's population. Whatever increase of the English-speaking Internet user base will have to come from non-native speakers, which explains why the Internet growth rate is much lower than it is in other markets.

See US English vs UK English translation for a closer look into the English-speaking market

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The Chinese-speaking market (19%)

The next largest market in size is Chinese. With 276 million users, Chinese speakers represent 18% of all Internet dwellers, a 755% increase in the last 8 years, consistent with the increase in production and purchasing power.

However, China remains a poor country and the GDP per capita is only USD 2,450, bringing the total GDP for Chinese-speaking Internet users to USD 676 billion. Online spending increased by 50% between 2006 and 2007 in China, but remains very low compared to its potential.

Chinese is little spoken outside of China, but one should note that the picture is quite different for Traditional Chinese speaking countries/areas, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, which represent approximately 21.8 million Internet users and a much, much higher GDP per capita. (USD 29,000 for HK, USD 16,500 for Taiwan and USD 35,000 for Singapore)

With a total population of 1.3 billion people and growing, the potential for Internet growth is tremendous, and this market could very well triple its size in the next few years. The main obstacle is the overall low levels of income, but situation has improved and will most likely continue to improve as China is one of the countries the least affected by the current financial crisis.

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The Spanish-speaking market (8.5%)

Third in size, the Spanish market includes most of Southern and Central America, a sizable part of the USA, and of course Spain. All in all, approximately 125 million Internet users speak Spanish.

This is less than half the size of the Chinese market, but thanks to a much higher GDP, almost 3 times as much purchasing power. e-Commerce sales figures in Spanish speaking countries have increased massively between 2006 and 2007 (58% Internet sales increase for Mexico, amongst others).

With a weighted average GDP per capita of USD 13,500, the global Spanish-speaking market account for a GDP close to USD 1.7 trillion.

The Spanish Internet market is also expanding at a very quick pace, +405% since year 2000, twice as fast as the English-speaking market over the same period. Spain's Internet users currently represent 45% of the population. With 14% of the population under the age of 15 and 17% over 65 years old, Spain's Internet users will nearly double in numbers before hitting a saturation point.

The largest potential for Spanish-speaking Internet growth is in Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, which have Internet penetration rates of 21%, 26% and 25% respectively.

Note that, as is almost always the case with widely spoken languages, the 'Spanish language' can be broken down in several 'local flavors' and Spanish spoken in Latin America is somewhat different from Spanish spoken in Spain.

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The Japanese-speaking market (6.4%)

Newsflash. Japanese is spoken in Japan, and basically nowhere else. However, Internet penetration (percentage of the population online) is very high, reaching 73% of the population.

As a result, Japan is the fourth language market on the Internet, with 6.4% of all Internet users. Given a rather high GDP (USD 33,800 per capita), the Japanese market represents nearly USD 3.7 trillion.

With 73% of the population already on the Internet, growth opportunities are almost nil compared to other markets. However, a high Internet penetration rate also suggest a more mature Internet economy and higher online spending.

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The French-speaking market (4.7%)

The French speaking market is one of the more interesting markets beside the English-speaking market. And I don't say that just because I am French. French-speaking Internet users number 68 million (4.7%)

This market has been growing by over 450% in the last 8 years.

Economically speaking the average GDP of French speakers is slightly over USD 40,200, bringing the total GDP of French-speaking Internet users at USD 2.7 trillion, bringing it close to that of the Spanish-speaking market despite a much smaller size in terms of users. Online purchases increased by almost 40% between 2006 and 2007 reaching a total of USD 28 billion, with about USD 4.2 billion over Christmas.

French usage is fairly homogeneous, and even though there are differences between Canadian French and 'Continental French', truth of the matter is that we mostly understand each other quite well. Belgium French and Swiss French are so close from France's French that in many instances, they can't be told apart.

French as spoken in various African countries (ex-French colonies) is somewhat different, but nevertheless quite understandable. Their economic position however is quite in contrast of that of countries such as Switzerland or France.

Official Internet penetration rate is low (17%), but it takes into account a lot of countries with rather low GDP levels, whereas Internet penetration in 'rich' French-speaking countries is actually higher (around 45%).

Still, this market (which is quite developed already) has the potential to double in size in the coming years.

With a high GDP level and a large Internet market growth potential, French is a prime candidate for translation.

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The German-speaking market (4.2%)

The German speaking market includes mainly Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and is quite similar to the French-speaking market both in terms of size and GDP.

With an average GDP of approximately USD 43,000 and 61 million Internet users, the German market is also very attractive.

The Internet penetration rate is quite high, with over 63% of the population already online, and the number of users increased by 115% since year 2000, a relatively slow rate compared to that of other markets. However, this also means the market is rather mature, with over 70% of the users making purchases online.

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The Arabic-speaking market (4.1%)

Arabic speaking countries are mostly located in Northern Africa. While Internet penetration remains quite low (17%) in absolute terms, one should keep in mind that several Arabic-speaking countries rank amongst the poorest countries in the World, devastated by war, disease and hunger. Rich countries in that market, such as Kuwait and Qatar, have a much higher Internet penetration rate, in the vicinity of 50%.

The arrival of the Internet in the Arabic world is relatively recent, as illustrated by an amazing 2,000% growth over the last 8 years!

In terms of GDP, Arabic-speaking countries show a very contrasted economic mix, from small, but hugely wealthy economies such as Qatar (GDP for Qatar stands at USD 80,000 per capita) to dismally poor countries such as the Chad and Ethiopia (USD 200 per person per year!!!)

The average GDP of Arabic speakers is USD 3,675. However if the poorest countries are not taken into account (as they do not really represent a viable market for foreign products and services), the average GDP is a little higher (USD 5,250 per capita). The Internet penetration rate is also higher, for a similar number of Internet users (about 50 million), as the poorest countries weigh relatively little in terms of Internet usage.

Looking at the richest Arabic speaking countries only (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate), the average GDP is USD 20,000 per capita, with approximately 15 million Internet users, and over 38% of the population already online.

In summary, even though the raw number of speakers with Internet access would make Arabic the 7th largest language market, it is not part of the top 10 language markets in terms of GDP (and thus potential ROI), with USD 250 billion total. However, the growth potential is quite significant.

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The Portuguese-speaking market (4%)

58 million Web users are native speakers in Portuguese. Of these 58 million, 54 million live in Brazil and 3 million in Portugal. Other Portuguese countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau account for only 1 million Internet users, despite a total population of more than 40 million people.

Average GDP per capita is USD 6,800 in Brazil and USD 21,000 in Portugal. Internet growth is very fast in Portuguese speaking countries, over 650% since the year 2000.

Both in Portugal and in Brazil, approximately 30% of the population is online, which suggest the growth of the Internet will continue in the coming years.

In Brazil, 28% of the population is under 15 years old, and 6% is over 65 years old, which means that approximately 38% of the population aged between 15 and 65 is not using the Internet yet. We can therefore expect to see the number of Brazilian Portuguese-speaking Internet users to double in the coming years, especially if we consider that the younger generation will soon hit the Web.

In Portugal, the age structure is more balanced, with 15% of the population under age 15 and 17% over 65 years old, but the Internet growth potential is comparable, with 33% of the population not using the Internet.

Portuguese spoken in Brazil is rather different of that spoken in Portugal, particularly in terms of spelling, so it might be a better approach to consider them as 2 separate markets.

E-Commerce sales figures in Brazil increased by 38% between 2006 and 2007, reaching a total of USD 4.9 billion.

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The Korean-speaking market (2.4%)

One might be surprised to see Korean in the top 10 language markets, since it isn't spoken anywhere beyond Korea.

Nevertheless, as Internet penetration is very high, with nearly 74% of the population online, there are 34 million Internet users in South Korea.

The GDP per capita is relatively high, at USD 20,000, bringing the total GDP for Korean at USD 680 billions, slightly more than Chinese, twice as much as Portuguese and 2.7 times more that of Arabic!

It is in fact the 7th language market in terms of 'Internet GDP'.

However, the number of Internet users has reached the saturation level and it is very unlikely to grow much in the coming years. 18% of the population is under 15 years old, and 10% is over 65. That's 28%, which means that there is already an overlap of Internet usage in these age groups.

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The Italian-speaking market (2.4%)

Italian is mostly spoken in Italy, and there are a few 'Italian enclaves' such as the southern part of Switzerland. However, Internet penetration is relatively high with approximately 33 million Internet users. There are also Italian communities in other countries, such as the United States, but they have not been taken into account due to a lack of data.

The GDP per capita in Italy is in line with that of other first world countries, at USD 35,800 and even higher in Switzerland, so a conservative estimate would put the total GDP for Italian-speaking Internet users at USD 1.24 billions, making it the 6th language market in the World, right behind Spanish.

In terms of saturation, 54% of the Italian population is online. That's about 20% below saturation levels, so one can expect the number of Italian users on the Internet will continue to grow at a reasonable pace (162% growth in the last 8 years).

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Other language markets

Here are a few smaller language markets your may find interesting. This list is far from complete. They have been fitted in 3 categories:

High income, high Internet penetration markets

These languages are well developed niche markets. Almost every native speaker of these languages is online and has some cash to spend. Further, local costs of living are high, which means your products could be quite competitive on these markets. On the other end, Internet penetration is maxed out and the number of potential customers will not expand further. (Internet statistics from 2007)

Language Online (M) Online (%) Comments
Dutch 15 M 91% Spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium mainly. Dutch colonies did not enforce the Dutch language or did not last long enough for it to become widely spoken. GDP per capita in line with that of other European countries.
Swedish 7 M 76% Swedish is spoken in Sweden mostly, and a little bit in Finland as well. High GDP per capita
Norwegian 3.8 M 80% Spoken in Norway. High GDP per capita
Finish 3.6 M 68% Spoken in Finland. High GDP per capita
Danish 3.5 M 64% Spoken in Denmark and somewhat in Iceland. High GDP per capita

Lower GDP but large Internet base with high growth potential

These languages have a significant Internet base, and somewhat low Internet penetration rates predict significant growth in the years to come. Unfortunately, they also have a low GDP per capita and eCommerce is less developed.

Language online Online (%) Comments
Russian 37 M 21% Spoken throughout the old Soviet union. GDP is on the low side
Khariboli 26 M 10% More commonly known as Hindi (see notes at the end).
Polish 16 M 42% Spoken in Poland and to some degree in ex-USSR.

From these figures, it looks like Russian belongs in the top 10 Internet languages, however the data collected are incomplete and require further research, so Russian is temporarily listed in "others". Given a currently low Internet penetration rate, Russian will clearly climb up the rankings over the next few years.

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Summary and tables

For the sake of convenience, the data have been summarized and statistics have been arranged in table formats. If you wish to dig deeper, check the corresponding language sections.

Top 10 Language markets by number of Internet Users

Rank % Language Internet Users Average GDP/capitaTotal GDP **
(Billion USD)
1 29 English 430,000,000 $41,000 $17,662.89
2 19 Chinese 276,000,000 $2,450 $676.73
3 8.5 Spanish 125,000,000 $13,500 $1,683.64
4 6.4 Japanese 94,000,000 $33,800 $3,177.20
5 4.7 French 68,000,000 $40,200 $2,739.73
6 4.2 German 61,000,000 $44,000 $2,693.38
7 4 Portuguese 58,000,000 $6,680 $319.50
8 4.1 Arabic* 50,000,000 $5,250 $246.50
9 2.4 Korean 34,000,000 $20,000 $680.00
10 2.4 Italian 33,000,000 $35,800 $1,242.55
Total 84.7 -- 1,229,000,000 $24,268 $31,122.12

* Arabic figures exclude the poorest countries to avoid diluting too much the GDP figures. Percentages represent total number of Internet users reported. More details in the Arabic section of this study.

** These figures are estimates (see the Methods section for details)

According to http://www.ethnologue.com/, there are 6,912 languages currently spoken around the World. However, as you can see in the table above, the top 10 languages represent nearly 85% of the World's population and over 1.2 billion Internet users.

While English is beyond doubt the most significant language on the Internet, it represents less than 30% of the total and other languages offer potentially large markets for your products and services, both in terms of numbers and in terms of purchasing power.

Raw size information are particularly useful when your business model relies essentially on the size of your audience (advertising-based revenue model). The perfect example of that would be "free" dating websites and social networks.

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Top 10 Language markets by average GDP per capita

Rank%LanguageInternet UsersAverage GDP/capitaTotal GDP **
(Billion USD)
14.2German61,000,000$44,000.00$2,693.38
229English430,000,000$41,000.00$17,662.89
34.7French68,000,000$40,200.00$2,739.73
42.4Italian33,000,000$35,800.00$1,242.55
56.4Japanese94,000,000$33,800.00$3,177.20
62.4Korean34,000,000$20,000.00$680.00
78.5Spanish125,000,000$13,500.00$1,683.64
84Portuguese58,000,000$6,680.00$319.50
94.1Arabic*50,000,000$5,250.00$246.50
1019Chinese276,000,000$2,450.00$676.73

* Arabic figures exclude the poorest countries to avoid diluting too much the GDP figures. Percentages represent total number of Internet users reported. More details in the Arabic section of this study.

** These figures are estimates (see the Methods section for details)

This table is more indicative of the actual purchasing power of individual Internet users for each language. Particularly useful if your product/services addresses a relatively exclusive type of customer. For instance, fashion products would most likely have a better ROI if marketed in the 5 top languages above.

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Top 10 Language markets by total GDP (Internet Users)

Rank%LanguageInternet UsersAverage GDP/capitaTotal GDP **
(Billion USD)
1 29 English 430,000,000 $41,000.00 $17,662.89
26.4Japanese 94,000,000 $33,800.00 $3,177.20
34.7French 68,000,000 $40,200.00 $2,739.73
44.2German 61,000,000 $44,000.00 $2,693.38
58.5Spanish 125,000,000 $13,500.00 $1,683.64
62.4Italian 33,000,000 $35,800.00 $1,242.55
72.4Korean 34,000,000 $20,000.00$680.00
819Chinese276,000,000$2,450.00$676.73
94Portuguese58,000,000$6,680.00$319.50
104.1Arabic*50,000,000$5,250.00$246.50
Total--1229000000$24,268$31,122.12

* Arabic figures exclude the poorest countries to avoid diluting too much the GDP figures. Percentages represent total number of Internet users reported. More details in the Arabic section of this study.

** These figures are estimates (see the Methods section for details)

This table lists language markets by the total GDP of its Internet users. This is not the same thing as the actual GDP of each country. It gives a general idea of the economical weight of each market.

German may have topped the chart for the GDP per capita, but it is plain to see that English is the largest language market, economically speaking.

To see Japanese in the second position may surprise many (myself included) until you realize that the Internet market penetration in Japan is very high, one of the highest in the World, and the average GDP is also quite high.

However, because the number of Japanese-speaking Internet users has already reached saturation levels, this market will stagnate while the number of Internet users will keep increasing in other languages. French will most likely take the second position in the next few years. German will follow but is also relatively close to saturation levels. Spanish, Chinese and Arabic have huge potentials for growth in number of users, but will probably remain in bottom half of this table for a while due to economic considerations.

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Notes and Comments

Language statistics and Economic statistics tend to be inaccurate. That's a fact. Depending on where you look, you will find different figures for the various statistics.

One of the reasons why numbers vary if that the statistic definitions from different sources are often not compatible. I attempted to select the most relevant figures to our present discussion, but I make no claim that these are 'the correct numbers'.

As you probably realized, this short study contains a few apparent oddities:

You will note, for instance, that I make no mention of 'Hindi' in this study. Official language of India, "Hindi" is supposedly spoken by 40% of all Indians, with figures ranging from 500 million speakers on up to nearly 700 million. Almost 100 million Indians are now online (Internet penetration rate of nearly 10%), so one could infer there are about 40 million Hindi speakers on the Internet, which is about right.

The problem is that "Hindi" is in fact an aggregate of several different languages that were bundled together under the name of Hindi for political reasons (see http://adaniel.tripod.com/Languages2.htm for more details). There are 12 widely spoken Hindi "dialects", the most popular being Khariboli with about 260 million speakers.

Factoring in a 10% Internet penetration rate, it appears there would be about 26 million Khariboli users on the Internet, which is not enough for an entry in the top 10 Internet languages. As the Internet becomes more widely available in India, the number of Khariboli-speaking Internet users will probably exceed the number of Italian and Korean speaking users within the next 2-3 years. However, India's GDP per capita being extremely low, translation to Khariboli will probably not be a priority investment for most.

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Opening new markets through translation

Looking through these statistics,you may have wondered what it would take to sell your products/services on some of these markets. How can you open new markets for your products and services? Should you? How much would it cost, both in terms of time and money? What's the next step?

The answer to these questions will depend on the nature of your services and products as well as your resources, but you are welcome to ask for a free consultation.

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