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The internet’s most popular languages

By Josian Phillips, 

Google estimates that the web is now made up of more than 30 trillion individual pages. Not bad for something that was only invented in the 1990s. This borderless realm allows businesses and individuals to connect with anyone, regardless of location. There is still one obstacle, though: language.

As the internet’s reach continues to widen, the diversity of languages used on the web is increasing. Unsurprisingly, English still dominates. Data from analytical firm Web Technology Surveys (W3 Techs) shows that it’s used on 55.5 per cent of all websites, but the lead is gradually diminishing. We’ve noticed this first hand at Brightlines Translation, having been asked to translate materials in over 40 different languages.

New initiatives from providers and governments are helping to push connectivity into all corners of the globe. This opens doors for businesses to expand internationally, but they must think carefully about which languages they translate their online content into.

Russian and German to take the top spots?

If English is ever knocked from its perch at the top, it’s most likely that Russian or German will take over.

At present, Russian is used on 5.8 per cent of sites, making it the internet’s second most popular language. Its growth has been rapid in recent years; between 2001 and 2011, online popularity rose by 1,826 per cent. This coincides with a surge in web availability across Russia itself, but can also be linked to the fact that it’s used for 79 per cent of all sites in neighbouring Ukraine, 84 per cent in Kazakhstan and 86.9 per cent in Belarus. With this in mind, it’s an obvious choice for any organisation targeting the Eastern European region.

Interestingly, third place is occupied by German, which is the main language of 5.7 per cent of sites. This may come as a surprise when you consider how much smaller the German population (80 million) is, but it’s worth noting that 80 per cent of these people have internet access. In Russia, the population is a much larger 140 million, but only 61 per cent are connected. What’s more, German is an official language for a number of countries around Central and Western Europe.

Spanish and French reach far and wide

It’s no coincidence that Spanish (4.6 per cent) and French (3.9 per cent) also feature prominently in the top ten most commonly used languages on the internet. Their homelands may be in Western Europe, but they can be heard and read across the world. Spanish alone is the official or national language of 20 different countries, while French is used in 29.

If you’re hoping to reach new audiences in South America or West Africa in particular, Spanish and French should be high on your translation priority list.

Internet languages in Southeast Asia

When choosing which languages to focus on first, you’d be forgiven for looking at the ones which boast the biggest number of speakers, but as Web Technology Surveys’ table shows, this isn’t always the best approach. For example, Japanese is ranked in fourth place with 4.9 per cent of sites, but its use outside of the Japanese population is severely limited.

Some people might’ve expected Chinese to rank a little higher than seventh (2.8 per cent of sites) as well, especially when you consider China has a population of more than 1.3 billion. The language’s chances of internet domination, however, are restricted for a number of reasons. Firstly, the various versions of Chinese are very much native languages, in that they’re spoken across China and a handful of neighbouring countries but only really extend to expat communities elsewhere. Secondly, internet use is heavily restricted by the government in China, meaning it’s a little trickier to create or even use websites. On top of this, only 45 per cent of the Chinese population has access to the web.

Fast-growing languages

Russian isn’t the only language that is growing quickly in popularity online. In the past 12 months alone, the number of sites written in Portuguese has risen from 2.2 per cent to 2.6 per cent, putting it comfortably in the top ten. Use of Italian has also grown from 1.8 per cent to 2.0 per cent in the same period, while Turkish has grown from 1.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent. These may not seem like massive figures, but the fact that these languages are gradually edging up the rankings shouldn’t go unnoticed by businesses with international aspirations.

Looking ahead

Your webpages may be written solely in English at present, but it’s important to realise how the internet’s linguistic landscape is evolving. The global nature of the internet presents all kinds of opportunities, but the success with which you capitalise on them depends largely on effective translation.

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