Indian languages are among the most widely spoken languages in the world, yet they do not command the same online purchasing power as Spanish, French, or fellow Asian language Japanese. This is intriguing, especially when you consider that the Indian economy is ranked third in terms of its purchasing power.
So why isn’t more online business happening in Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, or other Indian languages? I have some ideas about why translation has not been widely adopted among online businesses in this region, which I discussed with the localization professionals at the GALA think! India event in Bangalore last week.
Assumed English Tolerance
The bulk of companies doing business in India – whether born in India or not – assume that English will do just fine as their means of mass communication. If their intent is to reach just 9% of the population, then they’re right. And short-sighted.
The rest merely tolerate English – but by no means are they proficient. Perhaps it is the aspirational value and colonial baggage attached to English that makes it seem like the lingua franca of the country.
TheIndian Internet User’s Profile Is Changing
Gone are the days when an average Indian user would come home from office or school or college and log on to the internet through a dial-up connection. Today’s cyber Indians are always connected, thanks to mobile phone penetration and near-ubiquitous availability of an internet connection, never mind the speed of the said connection. About 90% of India accesses the internet from a mobile phone and this single fact drastically changes the profile of the average Indian internet user. Here’s how:
- Internet access in India no longer presupposes the ownership of a desktop computer.
- Internet use is no longer restricted to urban India.
- This also means that the English language proficiency of the new Indian internet user is not the same as the erstwhile desktop user. The modern user is undoubtedly more comfortable when addressed in her own language.
Marketers Are Not Connecting the Language Dots
Indian marketers do understand the importance of selling in the customer’s language. Indian language advertisements on TV have been around for more than a decade now, and so have multilingual call centers. What marketers haven’t realized is that today’s Indian consumer is ultra-connected; she has vastly different purchasing behavior than she did even a couple of years ago.
How else can you explain the fact that Indian companies are multilingual on TV, in print, and in every other marketing channel and yet, incredibly, continue to host monolingual websites? Is it right to assume that the customer who watches their advertisement on television, or reads it in print, or who calls into their call center, wants (or needs) to be spoken to in her own language, but the website visitor is unfailingly fluent in English? I think not.
The Misunderstanding that Tolerance Equals Comfort
Indian marketers who don’t connect the language and connectivity dots frequently end up in directing their efforts only towards the English-tolerant few. They ignore the fact that when it comes to actually buying something online, customers prefer a website in their own language. This is why it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to translate website content in order to market to a larger audience.
And, even if people don’t actually buy online, in today’s connected world, the purchasing behavior that influences the actual transaction is shaped by the online research that almost every consumer does today. So what they can and can’t read online matters.
Lastly, a Word of Caution
Don’t assume that language will rescue a poor quality product. As important as it is to provide customers with their preferred language option, it’s equally important that the localized product satisfies all the other needs of the customer and provides a rich user experience. While this may seem obvious, there are still company leaders in the region who talk about how this or that product failed to take off, despite language support being provided.
Language can open the door to the consumer, but whether or not they like what see inside is not a function of language.
Facebook and Google May Disrupt the Chicken-and-Egg Content Debate
For a long time, Indian companies used the content-connectivity conundrum as their excuse for not localizing. In the desktop era, you’d frequently hear them saying they didn’t need to localize because the market simply didn’t exist and it seemed like they were right. And why would the Indian user come online if there wasn’t enough local language content? On and on the debate went.
But with the rise of the mobile user, two of the three pieces of the content-connectivity puzzle have fallen in place. Now, cheap devices to access the internet abound, and connectivity is no longer an issue. The only missing piece is the Indian-language content itself and that’s where recent announcements by Facebook and Google are important.
On his recent trip to India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a $1 million contest for app developers in India to develop apps in local languages. A few days ago, Google launched its Indian Language Internet Alliance. Both of these efforts are meant to boost the production of local language content and with this, the third piece of the puzzle might just fall into place.
Indian language localization is inevitable. And when the tipping point comes, the challenge will be to find enough linguistic resources and scalable translation technology to support the demand.