Internet World Stats


Internet Coaching Library > Site Links > Internet Global Languages

Beyond Localization: The Rising Importance of Global English

by Martin A. Schell

Conventional wisdom at the end of the 20th century held that teams of translators should be summoned to convert web pages and other documents so that the content could reach a global audience. The teams produced "localized" versions of the web site, meaning they not only translated pages into "major" languages (e.g., Spanish, Chinese) but also adapted the content to the culture of end users who speak those languages.

The number of people who access the Internet surpassed 1 billion by the end of 2005. As more and more people come online in countries that speak "minor" languages, the task of disseminating information in translated form becomes increasingly complex. One must continually add new languages to a web site's display options. But even if such an extra effort is made, the site's designers will inevitably ignore large segments of the world who are not native speakers of any of the languages that were chosen.

There are 6,909 living languages, including 389 that have over 1 million speakers each (Lewis, 2009). It is not feasible to translate content into all of them. How often do you see sites that offer the option of viewing pages in Bengali, Marathi, or Telugu, each of which has over 60 million native speakers?

Localization is an excellent way to target a specialized market and increase one's appeal there. My point is not to abandon localization, but rather to rethink it as a global strategy for the worldwide web. Adding up parts of the world according to language groups will never equal the whole; in fact, that additive strategy is likely to amount to less of the whole as time goes on.

In Designing Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen gives a common explanation for excluding languages from web site localization efforts: They are spoken in areas that "do not have enough users to make localization worthwhile." However, the world's Internet users nearly quintupled during the first nine years of this millennium: from 361 million at the start of 2001 to 1,802 million at the end of 2009 (a 399% increase). Dramatic increases occurred on every continent, ranging from 140% in North America to 1,810% in Africa. Technologically advanced countries more than doubled their numbers of internet users, while other countries made huge strides in catching up. Among the world's 10 most populous countries, the amounts of increase during this nine-year period were: 1,607% in China, 1,520% in India, 146% in the U.S., 1,400% in Indonesia, 1,341% in Brazil, 13,716% in Pakistan, 456% in Bangladesh, 11,891% in Nigeria, 1,360% in Russia, and 104% in Japan Internet World Stats, 2009.

The rapid increases in Internet penetration worldwide compel us to realize that localization will become less effective at reaching the world's online population as time goes on. The number of Internet users who speak "minor" languages is rising, increasing the complexity and cost of a comprehensive localization effort. Internet penetration has reached 52.0% in Poland (November 2008), 48.5% in Iran (December 2009), 34.5% in Turkey (March 2008), 33.4% in Romania (September 2008), 25.7% in Vietnam (December 2009), and 24.4% in Thailand (September 2009). Each of these six "minor" countries has a national language that is spoken by over 20 million people Lewis, 2009.

The reason I indicate the month for each penetration figure is that Internet stats change very quickly. The 399% increase from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2009 is equivalent to a steady rise of nearly 5% during each of the 36 quarters during this 9-year period. Therefore, a table that cites surveys of countries that were done at different times of year is inevitably inconsistent. Figures based on surveys done near the beginning of a year could be under-reported by 5%, 10%, or more in comparison with countries surveyed near the end of the same year. I appeal to my fellow writers to represent data faithfully, because inaccuracies are likely to be echoed by our readers.

The lack of web pages in certain languages is obvious to people who are native speakers of those languages. If a web site does not consider their language important enough to merit localization, users often seek the English version of the site. At cybercafes in Indonesia (12.5% penetration as of September 2009), it is common to see a fluent speaker of English sitting beside a friend who is surfing, providing him or her with impromptu translation.

The incompleteness of localization is readily apparent to anyone who thinks globally. Translating a document into each of the 85 languages that has more than 10 million speakers would fail to serve 21.9% of the world's population Lewis, 2009. In terms of Internet users, 17.4% of the world would be neglected by a localization effort involving all of the top 10 languages spoken by the online population. Does it make sense for a company to throw away 15% or 20% of its potential market by pretending that its huge localization effort adequately serves "everyone"? Of course not.

One way to improve global outreach is to ensure that a web site has a version of its content in Global English. This does not mean American English, British English, Indian English, or any other well-known variety. Global English is English that is written or edited in a way that maximizes its global accessibility, specifically the ease with which non-native speakers can understand it.

Please note that the aim here is not to restrict anyone's freedom to publish web content in his or her own language. In fact, I celebrate the unstoppable decline in the fraction of the world's web pages that are written in English. The essence of a movement toward Global English is not to increase the proportion of web pages that are in English, but rather the proportion of web sites that make English available as an option for readers. The success of a Global English strategy is measured by the total number of visitors to a web site, not by the number who choose the site's English version instead of another language.

My next article will discuss how to write English so that it is globally understandable.

copyright © 2009, 2010 Martin A. Schell

About the Author:
Martin A. Schell
has been teaching at NYU's Stern School of Business as an adjunct since 2005. His consulting projects include designing and presenting writing workshops for the Ford Foundation and World Bank in Jakarta, as well as performing cost-of-living surveys for The Economist. In 2008, the journal World Englishes published his article "Colinguals Among Bilinguals". Martin spends most of each year in his wife's hometown of Klaten, Central Java. He can be contacted by emailing schell *at* or visiting his web site

^ top of article

››› Go to the Internet Coaching Library

Internet World Stats - Web Site Directory

Internet Usage Stats and Population Statistics
World Stats | Africa Stats | America Stats | Asia Stats | Europe Stats | EU Stats | Middle East Stats | Oceania Stats
Latin America Stats | Top Internet Usage | Top Internet Penetration | Top Internet Languages | Top Ten | Broadband
Caribbean Internet | Central America Internet | North America Internet | South America Internet | Search Site

Country Links and International Directory
Africa | Asia | North America | Caribbean | Central America | Europe | European Union | EU Enlargement | Middle East
South America | South Pacific and Oceania | Internet Users Associations | World Population | Country List | Site Guide

Internet Marketing Pages
Broadband Usage | Mobile Internet | Internet Usage | Internet Divide | Internet Growth | Internet Coaching Library
Internet News | Internet Users Associations | Internet Security Stats | Market Reports | Market Research
Press Release Coaching | SEM | SEO | Internet Search | Internet Browsers | B2B Trade Exchanges

Web Site Resources and Services
Media Kit | Blog | Dictionaries | Tools | Internet Telephone Calls | Conference Calls | Online Profits | NFL Tickets | Privacy
Newsletter | Press Room | Software | e-Learning | Translations | Web Services | Web Stats | Time | Weather | About Us

Country Internet Usage Statistics, e-Commerce and Telecommunications Reports
Africa | Asia | Americas | Caribbean | Europe | Middle East | South America | South Pacific

All About
Market Research

Internet World Stats

^ top of page

Copyright © 2000 - 2010, Miniwatts Marketing Group. All rights reserved worldwide.