What Language Rules Online Content? Research Reveals Surprising Findings

October 23, 2014
What Language Rules Online Content? Research Reveals Surprising Findings

According to data from UNESCO (The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the world’s most spoken languages are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French.

It might be reasonable, therefore, to assume that the languages used for websites would correspond broadly with these divisions, but new research has shown that that is far from being the case. 

The surprising results of the W3 Techs Usage of Content Languages for Websites survey can be broken down into three main categories, as detailed below. The figures throw into stark relief how much the prevalence of the internet and the population’s access to and engagement with it varies from country to country. 

English leads the pack

Despite only being spoken as a first or second language by 840 million of the world’s 7.125 billion citizens, English accounted for an astonishing 55.7% of the languages used by the websites examined by W3 Tech. Even when one considers that the US has the second highest number of internet users in the world (with some 254 million, according to the US Census Bureau) and that the UK has a further 54 million, the figure is still well out of proportion. 

Chinese and Spanish lag far behind

When it comes to two of the world’s three most spoken languages – Mandarin Chinese and Spanish – the website figures are massively out of kilter with the number of speakers. Spanish is used by 4.7% of all the websites whose content language was known to W3 Tech, while Chinese came in at just 2.9%. 

The Chinese figure is particularly surprising, as China ranks first among the world’s countries for internet usage, with US Census Bureau figures revealing it to have more than 568 million users. 

Some surprise contenders 

Also surprising was the presence of Italian and Polish in the top ten website languages. Despite having only 64 million and 40 million speakers respectively (pretty small numbers in global terms), Italian websites accounted for 1.9% of the total and Polish ones for 1.7%. 

The total number of internet users in each of these countries does nothing to explain the number of websites in Italian and Polish. Italy ranks 18th and Poland 21st when countries are listed by their internet users, with 35.5 million and 25 million users respectively, which clearly does not tally with either language being in the top ten used for websites. 

The final lesson

The clear lesson to learn, based on the W3 Tech data, is that businesses wishing to reach out to a global audience need to think carefully about the languages that they use for their website. Simply choosing the world’s most spoken languages to present a website in is not the same as guaranteeing maximum readership numbers!

What did you find most surprising about the website content languages rankings? Let us know via the comments box. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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