Originally published on Medium.
Publishing in English may be difficult, for non-native speakers. Also, English speakers may have reasons for publishing in locale languages.
It seemed to me that English was the obvious choice for publishing when locale content is not strictly involved. Was I wrong? Seen the effort for translation, and the difficulty for me to write directly in English, I’d prefer to check better with some statistics too.
I supposed — by a rough estimation — that English was more or less 20 times more diffused than my own language, Italian. Also, it’s an increasingly popular second/third language. Was I right? What about the other main languages? Should diffusion be the main criteria for deciding the language of publication?
The linguistic demography
I’ll take into consideration the main 10 world languages, plus Italian as an example of minor language. I assumed Wikipedia data are reliable enough for the purpose (based on the 2015 edition of Ethnologue).
Estimates on the top languages in terms of native speakers are:
- Mandarin (899 million)
- English (500 million)
- Spanish (500 million)
- Hindi (438 million)
- Arabic (290 million)
- Portuguese (230 million)
- Bengali (226 million)
- Russian (160 million)
- Punjabi (146 million)
- Japanese (130 million)
- Italian (65 million)
Mmm… I guess that I have to go into more details. Else, I have to learn Chinese.
We know that English is a common second language in many countries. So, let’s check stats on second languages.
- Mandarin (178 million, that makes 1,051 total, with native speakers)
- English (510 million, 1,010 total)
- Hindi (214 million, 652 total)
- Spanish (70 million, 570 total)
- Arabic (132 million, 422 total)
- Malay (204 million, 281 total)
- Russian (115 million, 275 total)
- French (192 million, 272 total)
- Portuguese (32 million, 262 total)
- Bengali (19 million, 245 total)
- Italian (20 million, 85 total)
That makes more sense. If I take Italian as an example, English seems to be around 12x more diffused. Seen that many publications suggest much more than 1 billion English speakers (up to 2 billion), that ratio may go up to more than 20x.
Anyway, these stats are not precise for many reasons:
- Inherent difficulties of worldwide censuses, included the difficulty to identify languages.
- Among multilingual persons, chances that one of the “extra” languages is English are significant.
- The level of knowledge of a language is not clearly identified by statistics. I suppose that they read/speak better English as a second language, than Chinese.
- English is more and more the lingua franca of Western countries, and of global business. Also, it’s taught in many schools.
Let’s focus on the Web
Now that we have an overview of demographic stats, let’s try a more pragmatic approach. Let’s see the numbers of Internet users by language. They refer to a more recent period (2017) than the above data, but we are interested in rough ratios.
- English (952 million, on estimated population of 1,430 million)
- Chinese (763 million, on 1,420 million)
- Spanish (293 million, on 510 million)
- Arabic (173 million, on 408 million)
- Portuguese (155 million, on 282 million)
- Malay (155 million, on 295 million)
- Japanese (118 million, on 126 million)
- Russian (105 million, on 143 million)
- French (101 million, on 406 million)
- German (84 million, on 95 million)
- Italian (51 million, on 60 million)
English is confirmed to be the most common Internet language. Together, English and Chinese represent a significant portion of the user languages. English is nearly 19x than Italian.
Moreover, Internet penetration map has some similarity with the map of countries with English speaking population (the best penetration is in North America and Europe). This means something, if you are interested in e-publishing.
Let’s return to decisions
Now I have some numbers. By these numbers, it seems confirmed that the English language gives me a rough 20x more exposure. If I’m addressing to a possible global audience I should with no doubt use English, else I’m losing a lot of opportunities.
Should you use English?
Like billions of other questions, the answer is “it depends”. On what?
- On your cultural area. Cultural differences across continents are the most important, especially speaking of East/West. Barriers are not only about language but about content too. And style, and marketing and so on. Get they listen to you in a cultural area from which you are stranger is very hard, unless your target is making your culture known in other countries or your content is really cultural independent. If you really want to reach a foreign area, usually the best option is to find a partner there, or go there.
- On the diffusion of your own language. If you are Spanish, English may be convenient for you too, but you already have a huge audience.
- On your intent (alias addressed audience). If you make a living on products/services locally based and want your publishing to be self-promotional, you should obviously use at least the local language. If the world knows you, except the area where you want to sell, your marketing definitely has gaps. Even if you are promoting global services/products, having a strong presence in your country is usually a plus. On the contrary, if you aim at a worldwide notoriety, English is mandatory.
- On your knowledge of English. You should have at least a basic knowledge in any case. If you don’t know English well you should take into consideration how much your content is locally related. If it’s a really global content, make an effort, and write in English anyway. Study, practice and improve it. If it’s only partially a global content, consider using your own language, or a multilingual publishing. As long as your English is a problem, catching opportunities with your own language may be better than nothing.
Sketching a simplification…
The less your language is widespread, the more the “use English” zone expands.
Near the red line between English and local, a bilingual approach makes sense (or multilingual, in case of companies). Of course, the effort is worth when your audience — current or planned in the near future — is wide enough, else it could be better to choose a single language.
So I’ll have to translate the book I am writing in Italian into English. Oh, my…