The global market requires companies of all sizes to use translation and localization services to communicate with multilingual audiences. However, translating into all languages is almost impossible, as people speak approximately 200 principal languages and a few thousand dialects worldwide.
So, where do you start from when taking your business global? There’s no one-size-fits-all localization solution. It mostly depends on the industry and your product. Ideally, you start with the markets that have business potential for your activity and the countries where people have already heard about your brand.
Here are the 15 most popular languages for translation based on current market trends and people’s purchase potential. Not all of them will be a good match for your business, but many of the languages in this list are essential when looking to consolidate your global market share.
Currently, Simplified Chinese is the language for translation with the highest business potential. Before talking about why localization for China is crucial, we should clear out a terminology confusion. Simplified Chinese refers to the written language. On the other hand, Mandarin is the name of the spoken language. So, during your localization process, you speak Mandarin, but you write in Simplified Chinese.
Now, let’s see what makes China so unique for business. In short, it’s the growing economy, which has become the second most powerful worldwide. Plus, China has 1.3 billion people who make a huge pool of potential buyers. The country’s middle class loves western products. From fashion and luxury products to health supplements to food, everything has a market in this part of Asia.
However, expanding to China doesn’t come easy at all. The main two challenges that will slow down your entrance are the cultural barriers and the need to comply with rigid regulations.
Many companies need to rebrand completely to establish a connection with the Chinese audience. Even Coca Cola had to change its name to become popular here. That’s because people in China have a different mindset from western buyers.
No company can make it on its own in this market. For how open-minded the Chinese government may seem, we’re still looking at a country with rigid regulations in place. Not only will you need professional language services and a team of local marketers to be successful, but you should also have local legal assistance to make sure you maintain a good relationship with the authorities.
Spanish is the second most spoken language worldwide, with as much as 450 million native speakers. The bad news is that you can’t reach them all with a single localization project.
Spanish is the official language in 20 different countries across Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Also, 43 million people speak Spanish as their first language in the US. Spanish has multiple versions, so companies have to localize for each country and region to ensure success. That’s because people in Madrid speak differently from Mexicans or Argentinians.
Let’s take the word “car,” for example. In Spain, people call it “coche.” However, this Spanish word means baby stroller in Chile. People use “coche” to say “car” only in the central part of Mexico. In all other Mexican regions, the local word for car is “carro,” a term you should also use in Colombia and Venezuela. The majority of Spanish speakers in Latin America use the word “auto” for cars and “carro” for shopping carts. So, if you localize for Argentina, Peru, Chile, or other Spanish speaking countries, you’ll have to go with this last version.
If you don’t localize for each region, you risk generating confusion and frustration among locals.
English is the language for international relationships, business, and travel. It has around 379 million native English speakers, and 753 million people speak it as a second language. For non-English speaking companies, localization in this language is a must when expanding outside national borders.
In localization, we can also talk about translating from English to English. Like Spanish, this language has multiple variants, so you might need to adapt your app, website, and marketing materials to meet the requirements of the local audiences. English is spoken in Malta, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the US, and the UK. Each of these audiences has its own way with words and a different cultural background, which requires a different approach for humor, idioms, or cultural references.
Most English speakers are aware of the differences, but not all of them have the skills to match the right language to the right audience. Why not? Because languages have evolved differently and the same word, gets different meanings from one country to another.
A “purse” in American English is what the British call a handbag. However, a “purse” In British English is more of a wallet. So, if you’re in the US, you carry a wallet in your purse, and, if you’re in the UK, you have a purse in your handbag. Both sentences express the same concept. Confused? Most English speakers would be at this moment! And that’s why you need to work with local linguists every time you localize for a new country.
South Korea (The Republic of Korea) is home to several dynamic markets and presents multiple business opportunities. It’s the fourth-largest economy in Asia and the ideal place for Western companies that aim to have a physical location on the continent.
If you’re looking to expand to Korea, you need localization services to overcome cultural and language barriers. Given the linguistic difficulties, localization in Korean isn’t a breeze. One of the main challenges to overcome is the formality in communication. The Korean language operates with seven levels of formality, each with a different verb ending. If you don’t know your audience well, your incorrect translation can end offending people instead of convincing them to buy from you.
Moreover, for localization in Korean, you also need to pay extra care to technical problems due to linguistic characteristics. The language is written in syllabic blocks and requires adding line breaks, primarily when localizing software, apps, or lines of code. The secret is to work with a translation company that has developed localization projects for Korea and has the technical and cultural insights to complete the project.
French is one of the most popular languages worldwide and not just for business purposes. It’s an official language in France, Monaco, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. The language is also spoken in over 30 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Moreover, French is an official language of the UN and the European Union.
Similar to Spanish and English, the main challenge when doing localization in French is to come up with a highly-customized version of your content for each country or region that you target.
That’s because French has multiple variants and dialects. On the one hand, we have French variations, such as Canadian French, Belgian French, Louisiana French, Quebec French, or Swiss French, to mention a few. On the other hand, you have to consider dialects, such as Breton (in the northwest of France), Alsatian (in the French region of Alsace), or Flemish (near the border of Flanders, Belgium).
While it’s hard to localize for each of these dialects, you still need to be aware of the variations when you build your localization strategy. Using only French to target multiple countries can generate confusion and frustration among local speakers. It also sends the message that you don’t care enough for potential customers who live outside France.
There’s good news, too, when localizing in French. The competition is pretty low, as only a small part of web content is available in French for now. According to Wikipedia, only 3 percent of websites worldwide publish content in French, which leaves you with many native speakers who are likely to appreciate your localization efforts.
German has around 220 million speakers. Most of them live in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. In this case, we’re looking at powerful economies, where people have high purchasing power and appreciate high-quality services.
Even if most German dialects are relatively similar in their overall structure, local speakers can spot language shortcuts a mile away. So, localization in German should focus on both the linguistic and cultural differences between German-speaking countries.
As a brand, you’re less likely to convince an Austrian public to trust you when using the same content as for your German audience. You need cultural insights to localize for each country where German is an official language. Because people might speak pretty much the same language, but they have a different cultural background and respond to different emotional triggers.
Ideally, you should work with native speakers who live in the target regions and are aware of the cultural differences between countries.
Italian is the mother language of almost 80 million speakers, mostly coming from Italy, Vatican City, San Marino, and Switzerland. Italy provides excellent opportunities for companies that sell video games, tech products, apps, and software. Also, 85 percent of Italians buy online from foreign websites.
However, they’re also famous for the connection that they have with the language so much that the Italian dubbing of foreign films is considered the best in the global industry. Yes, Italians prefer all content translated, including Netflix series.
If you want to sell in this country, you need to do localization by the book. And that’s not always easy, as translating to Italian comes with a series of technical challenges. They include the need for extra space for text and the presence of special characters that don’t exist in other languages, such as à, é, or ì. You want to implement them with code, to prevent corrupted characters on your website, app, software, or video game.
Dutch is one of the most popular languages for translation and localization. It’s spoken not only in the Netherlands but also in Belgium and a few Caribbean Islands as a minority language.
Why is Dutch so popular, despite not having the hundreds of millions of speakers (like Spanish or Chinese)? Mostly because the Netherlands is an appealing market thanks to its position as the 10th largest importer in the world. The country imports fuel, machinery, food, live animals, electronics, and the list goes on to cover for up to $42 billion worth of goods.
Even if the Netherlands is the country with the best non-native English speakers, the Dutch still appreciate brands that invest in localization. So, your investment in high-quality language services pays off.
As a general rule, localization for Dutch doesn’t come with too many technical challenges. The language, however, varies with every country in word order, pronunciation, and grammar. Dialects are mutually intelligible, but you should pay attention to nuances when localizing for each region. Brands should focus on differences to make sure they send correct and engaging messages for every target audience.
Hebrew has a place at the top of the list of challenging languages for translation and localization. Think that it writes right to left, so you need to perform multiple changes in layout and design to make room for a new direction of reading. It’s a technical challenge that takes effort and significant resources.
The language, too, comes with a series of difficulties in translation. You need local linguists to make sure your texts sound natural in Hebrew. Israel’s population is diverse, and locals also speak other languages, such as English or Arabic, which means that some words don’t even get translated at all. Rewriting them using the Hebrew alphabet could be a better choice in a localization project.
Why should you bother with all this, since most Hebrew speakers also speak English? You’re looking at a market where most of the people who can afford your products are pretty fond of their cultural heritage. When you take the extra mile to localize in Hebrew, you show your potential buyers that you care about their history and respect their culture.
And if that doesn’t convince you, maybe some numbers will. The language is spoken by approximately 9 million people worldwide, of whom 7 million are fluent. Most of them live in Israel, which sits in the top 25 countries by purchasing power. Moreover, Israel has 131,000 millionaires, and its wealth is expected to keep growing.
Swedish is the official language in Sweden and one of the two official languages in Finland. It has more than 9 million speakers, most of them also fluent in English.
Localization is necessary for this language, as it helps you to gain trust and build brand loyalty. Brands that make an effort to translate their content can connect to a deeper level with their audience, as Swedish tend to have a preference for their native language.
The good news is, overall, localizing in Swedish is easier than with many other languages, as it doesn’t come with too many technical or linguistic challenges. With the right language service provider by your side, you should have a Swedish version of your website ready in a short period.
Finland is a country where the majority of the local population also speaks Swedish, English, or both. However, Finns are pretty fond of their language and tend to browse and purchase in their own language proudly.
This detail alone tells a lot about the importance of localization in Finnish. Brands that localize are more likely to sell in this market. Also, Finns prefer to buy from trusted websites, and 53 percent of them are likely to buy from a foreign website.
Localization enables you to connect with the Finnish audience and provide them with tailor-made services that include in-depth information about products accessible in the local language, local payment methods, and customer support.
Danish is the official language of Denmark and has around 5.5 million speakers, living both inside the country and outside national borders. The trick here is to know your audience well before starting the localization project, as the target public can influence your translations significantly.
Localization for Danish implies translating into regional dialects rather than going for a standard solution that targets the entire population. The primary challenge is finding professional translators who live in every targeted region and are aware of the differences within the language.
Norway has been for many years the best country to live in as Norwegians are considered some of the happiest people in the world. Connecting with them might be a little more difficult that it seems, though.
Localization in Norwegian means switching your mindset to meet the requirements of an audience that doesn’t fit into any social patterns. You’ll have to change everything about your content, including images, design, colors, payment methods, and marketing content.
You’ll need to work with local marketing specialists, translators who live in the country, and localization specialists that have in-depth cultural insights to gain a competitive advantage in Norway.
Icelandic is one of the most challenging languages to learn, so the first thing to do when localizing in this language is to find native translators. It’s the language spoken in Iceland, a country that is friendly with companies looking for new locations for their international operations.
Why should you even consider localization for Iceland? Because Iceland has a low-tax policy, competitive costs for skilled labor, and a highly-educated audience. If you want to do business here, you need localization to connect with the locals. That’s because, like anywhere else in the world, people prefer searching for information and purchasing in their native language.
The country has a small population, but the business potential of having a local presence here is worth the effort.
Japanese has around 150 million speakers. It may not seem much when placed next to the number of Chinese speakers, but you should analyze this market from a different angle.
Japanese are known for their taste for online shopping, regardless of age, gender, or educational background. This habit brings many business opportunities on the table, but it also makes competition between online retailers pretty fierce.
In simple words, the expectations are high, so localization in Japanese has little to no room for translation errors or cultural misunderstandings. Japanese are willing to pay high prices for everything, but they expect perfection in every interaction with a brand.
The localization for Japan also comes with technical challenges. The language has a different alphabet, with multiple character sets, and different phonetic readings. Translating code strings as part of a localization project could quickly turn into a never-ending activity. Only expert programmers and linguists can help you figure things out to build a solid reputation among Japanese buyers.
The list of localization benefits is pretty long. At first glance, we can talk about consolidating your global presence, building long-lasting customer relationships, building brand awareness, and increasing the interest in your products worldwide.
However, it doesn’t mean you should rush into a global localization project without evaluating the risks. You need to do in-depth market research before deciding on the right languages to localize for. Just because it worked for a competitor or business partner doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results. So, evaluate the business potential first, and hire localization experts after.
Also, as an entrepreneur or business owner, you know you have one chance to make a first impression. Under this light, you should get in touch with professional teams only. As you could see, localizing in any language of the list above requires cultural insights and full awareness of the social expectations. With proper guidance, your business will be able to overcome cultural barriers and communicate effectively with local audiences.