The number of languages on the internet is rising

Former German chancellor Willy Brandt is cited to have said that ‘Sie verkaufen und ich kaufe, sprechen wir Deutsch. Aber Sie kaufen und ich verkaufe, dann sprechen wir Ihre Sprache’ (If you’re selling and I’m buying, we’ll speak in German. But if you’re buying and I’m selling, then we’ll speak your language). You’d be hard pressed to claim that Brandt was alone in this sentiment; the positive effect that multilingualism can have upon a company’s global impact is something posited by the translation industry as a reason for our very existence. Yet there are some who would suggest that in the age of global communication, multilingualism online is becoming less paramount. Some would even go as far as to suggest that English is becoming the lingua franca of the web, rendering other languages as obsolete. We feel this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Infographic: Is the internet contributing to the death of languages? | Statista

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Recently published on Statista, the above chart demonstrates the number of lanugages used on some major websites within the last 4 years, as well as providing figures for the number of languages in use on earth. The chart’s post suggests that the use of English online is perhaps the reason why some languages are being lost; the chart itself, however, appears to paint an entirely different picture. It actually proves the critical role that the internet is playing in promoting multilingualism and global collaboration.

The chart documents the increase in the number of languages that some of the widest used websites on the internet are available in. This increase can only indicate a rising demand: Facebook crowdsources the translation of its user interface, so its increased number of languages corresponds to an increase in the number of users wanting to use the website in their native language. Wikipedia is used worldwide as an open, collaborative source of information; to be operating in 290 languages indicates a large number of people wanting information that they can understand perfectly. Google Translate improves itself by storing and learning from inputted user content. To be functioning to even a passable level in 91 languages, it must be collecting data from a huge number of people across a range of languages; masses of multilingual web content must be readily available for it.

Simply put then, none of these websites would have increasingly multilingual functionalities were there not an increasing demand for this. The content of the web is not becoming more focussed upon English; on the contrary, as more and more people gain access to the internet, the need for web copy and user interfaces in a larger number of languages is only increasing. An increasingly multilingual web is an increasingly multilingual world, and a company aimed at selling to the global market would do well then to follow this trend. If you can get ahead of the crowd in terms of new consumer language habits, you’ll be selling in markets where competitors are still only able to buy.