Doesn’t everybody speak English?

As an exporter of products, you may be tempted to skip translating your packaging, marketing material, or documentation. After all, English is possibly the most important lingua franca today. It is true that many people around the world know some English. But most of them are still far removed from real language skills. This means that an English-only approach will exclude or even alienate the vast majority of potential customers.

In some cases, you would think this issue does not even arise. For example, manufacturers of machinery exporting to Europe are legally required to provide translated documentation (see European Machinery Directive). But here the question of “why translate?” is then replaced with “why bother with a good translation?” The assumption that end customers can refer to the original English documentation can lead companies to sacrifice translation quality in order to save time and money.

As this article will show, a translation is likely the only way for customers to learn of or about your product. You cannot assume that they will go to the trouble of referring to the English for definitive answers. Translating your material is thus a real necessity. You insist on high-quality copy in English for good reasons. The translation better be just as good. Remember: the translation is all that your foreign customers may see.

Where are the English speakers?

There are several countries where English is the main language, namely Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States. Some of these countries are large and cover an impressive portion of land:


By Rob984Creative Commons

Relative to the world’s population, however, English-speaking countries represent only a tiny sliver: the estimated 360 million native speakers of English in these countries represent only about 4.8% of the world’s 7.5 billion people.


By Wikideas1 – CC BY 4.0

If we include non-native speakers with significant competency, the coverage increases. With the generous assumption that there are about 1 billion second-language speakers, this includes ca. 18% of the world population:


By Sulez razCC BY 4.0

Where is English not useful?

However, outside of the countries with official or semi-official support for English, proficiency drops precipitously:


By EF Education First – CC BY 4.0

Levels of (self-reported) “moderate”, “low”, or “very low” proficiency cover wide swaths of the planet. These numbers are based on online questionnaires and thus include only the well-off and/or educated portion of the countries in question. Therefore, the true average competency is likely much lower.

As a consequence, at least 80% of the world’s population would be de facto unreachable with an English-only approach. Avoiding translation is thus an untenable strategy for any brands with global aspirations.

Europe in detail

Many exporters have a much narrower focus and take their products to only a few countries. US census data show that exports to the major non-English-speaking European trade partners amount to about 13% of overall trade in 2016. This makes the European geographic region a primary trade partner of the US. Since we also have good linguistic data for this region, let’s focus on English proficiency in Europe. According to the Eurobarometer 386 survey, there are marked differences in people’s trust in their own ability to use English:

By Jakub Marian

Rather than focusing on the positive value of these numbers, exporters may want to invert them. This allows to project how many people they exclude if they choose not to translate product documentation, marketing, and packaging. In Germany, English-only marketing would thus fail to reach 44% of the population, it would ignore 61% in France, and in Italy 66%. In Spain, you would leave aside a whopping 78% of the population.


Disregarding any legal demands for translation, it simply makes business sense to offer products in the native language of the target country. You would otherwise willfully limit your customer base even in countries where people have a good command of English. Then there is a difference between just going through the motions and meeting your customers’ needs. With the exception of true aficionados, people prefer to speak and read their own language. Thus, good customer service means addressing customers in their language. As nothing undermines the perception of quality like typos or crummy wording, you do well by always aiming for high-quality translations. Because good translations support your good name.

Written by Philipp Strazny of The Geo Group Corporation.


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