Here’s a question I’d like you to think about: what language do you prefer to be served? I mean in general, when shopping, calling the cable company, accessing government services or any other daily duties. Would you like to shop in your native language, or would you be OK with English? And if English is your native language, then how about taking care of your daily duties in Spanish?

The view on multilingual services varies greatly depending on where you are. If you ask a random American, they’ll probably say that English should be made a mandatory language and everyone in the world should learn to speak it. Except, if this person represents the 1/5 of the American population that is not natively English speaking. They would likely feel it’s important to be able to continue using their native language and stay in touch with friends and relatives in some other country.

Now, let’s go global and ask the same question from a random Chinese person. The first problem is that he or she will likely not understand anything we say, so we’ll first have to get the question translated to Mandarin (or Cantonese, depending on where you are asking the question). Once we get this part done, we’ll receive an answer and then get it translated back to English. The odds are our target person only cares for services in Mandarin or Cantonese, as one of those would be the only language they speak.

Jani and the Switzerland flag

If we ask a Swiss, they’ll likely have a preference on the main language they receive service, but they will often be ok with German, French, Italian or sometimes English or even Spanish. Ask a Finn and you will hear mostly Finnish or Swedish. Currently I am in Mauritius and the locals here are comfortable speaking in English, French or Creoli, which is the native language for most of them.

The point is, if you want to reach a global audience, you need to be prepared to serve people in their own language, no matter how dominant you think English is in the internet. Facebook would not be at 500 million global users without the 70 or so languages the service supports. They could do a lot better job in supporting friendships between speakers of different languages, but the key is that at least they let people use their native language to access the service.

This has been true for retail sales forever, all kinds of products you can buy at your local market always have text on them in the local language (and possibly a number of others). For some reason we tend to forget it when we create websites. Most of the websites serve just one language group, even though the service would work equally well to people in other language groups.

The thing that caught me by surprise when we first built Xiha was the attitude from several venture capitalists that nobody needs a website that works in multiple languages. Why? Because everyone speaks English. Or French. Or Chinese. But not many languages. Let’s ignore the fact that this is not true (more than half of the world’s population speaks at least two languages) and assume that this is the case. Let’s over-simplify the situation even further and say that people in France speak French, and people in China speak Chinese. And I guess people in England speak English.

The world language map (courtesy of bab.la)

Now, even if everyone speaks just one language, you will still want your web service to work in as many languages as possible, or you will be limiting yourself to only a small portion of the internet users. According to Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm), just 27% of the internet users are English speakers (again, many of the non-English speakers might understand some English, but remember that we are now assuming each person can only speak one language).

Chinese comes at number two with 22% of the internet users, and the remaining languages each command for less than 10% of the total. The fastest growing languages in the past decade have been Arabic, Russian and Chinese, and in fact the number of English speakers in the internet is growing proportionally slower than the total number of internet users, so the percentage of English speakers will continue to decline even as the absolute numbers grow.

By offering your product or service in multiple languages, you can easily multiply the size of your potential customer base without any significant extra work. The technology is at the point where translations are accessible to everyone and neither the price nor the required technical skills are a real barrier anymore. There are services, for example PremiumFanPage which is a product of my company, that help you take your website in a number of languages even if you personally don’t speak any of those languages.

Chinese shopping list

It may sound like a solid strategy to build your service in English first, and once it captures a good market share of the English speaking users, then expand to Spanish, then to French, and so on. The problem with this idea is that the technology is evolving really fast now and a lot of companies and individuals out there are really good at reacting to changes in the market. By the time your service takes off in the US and you prepare for foreign expansion, the Chinese, French and Swedes will have already saturated their local markets with copy-cat products.

What is a good solution, then? Go global, and go multilingual, from day one. Your customers will love you for serving them in their language. For a long time it has been a known fact that one of the best ways for a small startup to win customers from a giant market leader is by providing excellent customer service. There is no better way to get started with that than providing your website in as many languages as possible.