International Business Strategies

Is English Still the ‘Lingua Franca’ of the Internet?

For years, companies have served global consumers exclusively with English-language websites. Have they been getting it wrong all this time?

Evan Kramer's avatar
Evan Kramer

April 04, 2023


Language enhances human connections and shapes our day-to-day lives in powerful ways—both in the real world and online. In the global marketplace, customers invest far more trust in, and spend more on, websites that literally speak their preferred languages. 

Yet many major companies are just now beginning to appreciate the vital role language and website translation play for online global customers. Not only does it govern our online conversations and behavior, but it also limits what information we access. 

Customers invest far more trust in, and spend more on, sites that literally speak their preferred language.

Twenty years ago, researchers determined that about 80% of the Internet’s content was published in English—not surprising, given that the Internet was initially developed in the U.S. and UK, and was rapidly adopted in those countries. 

These days, businesses need more than English-only websites if they hope to connect effectively with global customers. The Internet and the world have changed radically since the mid-90s. To remain competitive, companies must keep pace.

The Evolution of Internet Communication  

January 1, 1983 is considered the official birthday of the internet. Since then, a lot has changed. The Internet’s expansion into a global communication landscape was expeditious. In 1993, after 10 years of existence, it only communicated 1% of the information flowing through two-way telecommunications networks. That shot up to 51% by 2000, and more than 97% by 2007. 

Here are some of the ways the internet was able to expand into a global communication tool: 

  • Increased availability: As internet infrastructure has improved around the world, more people have gained access to the internet. This has led to an increase in the number of internet users globally. 
  • Growth of social media: Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and LinkedIn have become increasingly popular globally, providing people with new ways to connect and share information. 
  • Localization of content: The internet has become more global as websites and services have made efforts to localize content for different regions and languages. Website translation and localization have made it easier for people around the world to access information and communicate online. 
  • Expansion of e-commerce: The growth of e-commerce has made it easier for people to buy and sell goods and services across borders. This has created new opportunities for businesses and consumers around the world. 

Though everyone around the world started to use the internet to interact, buy and sell goods, and develop professionally, the issue of language and communication barriers became evident. But if the whole internet were to choose one language, what would it be? 

What Does “Lingua Franca” Mean? 

By definition, a lingua franca is a language used to communicate between groups of people who all speak different languages. It is considered the most efficient way to get information across to multilingual audiences. In the case of the internet, it would be the “most common” language utilized by web creators and businesses. 

Has the Language of the Internet Changed? 

The dramatic increase in Internet access over the past decade has greatly influenced online content. The number of Internet users worldwide is around 5 billion, up nearly ~126.24% from the 2.21 billion users reported in 2015. Much of this growth is happening in emerging markets, where English is spoken as a secondary or tertiary language, if at all. 

Between the mid-90s and mid-2000s, English-language content dropped from 80% to about 45% of total online content, with some experts placing it at less than 40%. This trend was fueled by the global adoption of mobile and smartphone technology, and the emergence of social media. Chinese became the second-most common language used online, increasing by a staggering 2,227% since 2000.  

Currently, English still holds the first place slot with 58.8% of Internet use. Russian is in second at 5.3%. Spanish represents a close third, with French trailing right behind in fourth. 

China and India currently lead the world in Internet and social media usage. By 2023, nearly half of China’s population will be using social networks. China is not an English-first market, and in India, nearly 90% of residents don’t speak English. 

Studies suggest that about half of all Twitter posts are written in languages other than English—with Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Indonesian consumers being most active.

[insert YouTube video:]

How Does Language Impact Business? 

This ever-evolving linguistic landscape has a powerful impact on global online business. According to a 2006 survey by Common Sense Advisory, 73% of respondents were more likely to buy in their native language. Eight years later, the group conducted a larger-scale study. Consumer demand had increased to 75%. 

The 2014 survey found that nearly 60% of respondents either “spend more time on sites in their own language than they do in English—or boycott English-language URLs altogether.” In addition, global consumers expressed a willingness to pay more for items if descriptive information was provided in their preferred language. 

By translating and localizing your business’ website to accommodate certain markets, you open yourself up to some great benefits: 

  • Reach a larger audience: By translating their websites into multiple languages, companies can reach a larger audience around the world. This can help them tap into new markets and increase their customer base. 
  • Improve customer experience: Nearly 20% of respondents in a European survey said they never visit websites that aren’t available in their language. Translating a website can help provide a better customer experience, which can lead to increased sales and customer loyalty. 
  • Enhance brand perception: A company that takes the time to translate its website into multiple languages shows that it values its customers and is committed to serving a global audience. This can enhance the company’s brand perception and reputation. 
  • Gain a competitive advantage: E-commerce companies that translate their websites can gain a competitive advantage over those that don’t. By offering a more inclusive and accessible shopping experience, they can attract customers who may not be able to shop on other sites. 
  • Increase revenue: Over 40% of those surveyed in a European study said they never purchase products and services in other languages. Website translation can help minimize bounce rates, improve customer experience, and gain a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. 

So, is English the Universal Language? 

The takeaway is clear: English hasn’t been the lingua franca of the Internet for many years—and as Internet adoption continues to grow worldwide, content in languages other than English will become increasingly vital for business. 

To remain competitive on a global scale, companies in every industry must provide online experiences that are in-market, in-language, and accessible to local consumers on their devices of choice. Website translation is becoming a must for businesses who want to grow and remain relevant. Embracing these inclusive best practices is mission critical to achieving international business success.

Last updated on April 04, 2023
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About Evan Kramer

Evan Kramer has over 25 years’ experience managing private equity and venture-backed companies focused on digital transformation, marketing, and technology. Mr. Kramer has delivered strong investor returns over four different exits.

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Evan Kramer

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