When talking about language diversity and global website development across the Internet, I often point to the following exhibit:
Language Leaders of the Internet 2015
This chart is based on data from the 2015 Web Globalization Report Card. English (US) is not counted.
Wikipedia: The Linguistic Yardstick
As you see, Wikipedia is far and away the language leader, supporting nearly 300 languages. Wikipedia represents (for now) the high-water mark for linguistic diversity on a website. Wikipedia is a fascinating case study in global website development because contributors are not paid to create content; what you see reflects user initiative from around the world (as well as factors such as Internet and computer penetration).
Keeping Wikipedia’s language dominance in mind, I was interested to see this quote recently in Motherboard:
There are 533 proposals for Wikipedia languages in incubator stage, more than twice the number of actual Wikipedias, but Kornai estimates no more than a third of them will ever get the required minimum of at least five active users and get enough pages to make it onto Wikipedia proper.
In other words, it is feasible that in a few years we could see the number of languages on Wikipedia surpass 400, or more. Of course, the Motherboard article stresses that languages are in fact dying as a result of the Internet (a topic for a future blog post).
Ranked below Wikipedia we have Google, with support for more than 145 languages. Note that this number reflects only the Google Search interface; other Google services (such as YouTube and Gmail) support between 60 and 80 languages.
Next in the language ranks are global companies such as Mercedes, DHL and Panasonic, which support between 41 to 44 languages on their websites.
Compared with Wikipedia, 41 languages may not seem like much, but most websites have yet to surpass five languages.
For most companies, 40 languages is a goal they cannot even imagine reaching. The average number of languages supported by the websites in the Report Card is 30 — which reflects only the leading global companies and brands.
Average Number of Languages Supported by Leading Global Websites
Most companies are happy if they support five or more languages on their websites.
So what does this data mean? To me, it means that there is a profound chasm between possible number of languages a global website can support (Wikipedia) and the practical number of languages that most websites currently support. By practical, I’m referring to the limited budgets that companies commit to professional website translation and global website development.
Google Translate for the Masses
At the bottom of the chart I included Google Translate — with support for 80 languages. Google Translate is important because it is the tool that millions of Internet users rely upon to translate websites and other content.
And here is where things get interesting, because machine translation (warts and all) supports a vastly greater number of languages than most Fortune 500 companies.
In other words, Google Translate is serving an audience of Internet users that most global websites have so far ignored. This chasm between language supply and demand is creating opportunities for those companies that are willing to make the right investment. The question every organization must ask themselves is which side of the language chasm they wish to reside in. Do they want to be language leader or do they want to force their customers to rely on Google Translate instead?