Tutorial : Prioritizing Which Languages To Support

Transitioning from a single language company or product is an ongoing process. The first step is deciding which languages to support, and how to use analytics tools to measure results and maximize your return on investment. Done right, a multilingual rollout can increase your market reach and revenue by an order of magnitude or more. Done wrong, it can be an expensive cost center. 

This advice is primarily aimed at website and application developers, and will help you learn which markets are most likely to adopt your product, and which languages will give you the most leverage in expanding your audience. I generally recommend that companies follow a three step process. This approach enables you to build the systems and processes needed to support multilingual services, and do so in a low cost, low risk manner during the early stages.

Step 1 : Launch Your Product In Regional Variants Of Your Home Language

The idea of localizing your service from American to British English might seem a bit silly, but this is a low-risk way to rehearse the localization process without risking a comically bad translation fail. Most companies don’t get around to putting systems and processes in place until a translation requirement is forced upon them, which almost always leads to bad results. See “What Every Startup Needs To Know About Translation” for more on this.

Besides enabling you to build your localization team and processes, and rehearse the process of launching your product in another locale, localizing into regional variants of your home language enables you to expand your reach. For example, British English is preferred by many people in the English speaking world. Adding a British flag to your site sends a welcoming message to them, and is also a proxy way of soft launching your product in the European market.

Using web analytics, you can conduct a simple A/B test to compare usage of your app or service in American English and British English. You’ll probably notice much broader usage in British English as people from the English diaspora find you. If your product is launched first in Spanish, you can do the same thing by supporting regional variants of the language, and similarly monitor usage patterns.

Step 2 : Add International Languages

Once you’re experienced with launching your site in regional variants of your home language, the next step is to add major international languages. Like English, these languages are spoken in many countries, and enable you to reach a large number of users with a relatively modest investment.

The top languages in this category include Spanish (Latin America/Spain), French (France, large parts of Africa), Portuguese (Portugal/Brazil), Arabic (Middle East) and Chinese (China/Taiwan/Singapore). By adding just five languages, you can expand your audience dramatically, as shown in the tables below.

English (second language) | population 1.4 billion

Chinese | 8 countries | population 1.2 billion

Spanish | 20 countries | population 428 million (*)

English (native language) | population 400 million

Arabic | 24 countries | population 370 million

French | 29 countries | population 367 million

Portuguese | 9 countries | population 238 million

Combined with English, these five languages enable you to reach approximately 4 billion people, over half of the world’s population.

Step 3 : Add Major National Languages

Not all markets are equal in terms of revenue or audience potential, so once you’ve launched in the top international languages, you may want to branch out to support major national languages, and target the most developed and populous countries in doing so. Examples of languages in this category include German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Russian. The list you decide to target will depend on which countries are most important to your company.

Step 4 : Add Countries/Languages With Strong Audience Growth

By supporting major international languages, you’ll be able to reach users in virtually every country on Earth. You can use web/app analytics to track which countries are growing fastest, and spot emerging markets quickly. For example, your cycling news service might turn out to be especially popular in the Netherlands, making a Dutch localization a good investment to encourage stronger audience growth and user retention.

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