Big Opportunities in Domestic Language Needs
In a recent panel discussion moderated by Lionbridge and hosted by Multilingual Magazine the subject of domestic localization needs for individuals who do not speak the dominant language in a country emerged as a topic of discussion. This topic is largely ignored in the United States (and elsewhere), with the exception of certain regulated industries, such as insurance and healthcare. Of course, Spanish is the major non-English language in the U.S. If treated independently, it would be the world’s eleventh-most-significant tongue in economic terms, just behind Italian and just ahead of Dutch. An additional 12 languages spoken in the U.S. surpass at least one official EU language in population and economic power.
Note: This article is written from a U.S. perspective, but the same lessons apply to brands in other countries, whether it be supermarket chains in Britain that need to support Urdu, Malaysian service companies that support the Chinese expat community, or German insurance firms providing service for Turkish-speaking populations. The United States is one of the largest multilingual countries in the world, but opportunities abound elsewhere for those who look for them.
Despite the size of the opportunity, major brand websites scarcely target these significant U.S.-based communities. Our examination of over 2,800 major brand websites turned up a scant handful that supported U.S. Spanish. Ironically, the ones that did tended to be smaller brands that addressed regional audiences in the U.S. Southwest, Northeast, or Florida. Although quite a few did have Spanish for Puerto Rico, their sites were specific to the island and not targeted at the broader U.S. audience. Beyond Spanish, we uncovered but a single travel brand that addressed a U.S. domestic Chinese audience as part of a broad localization portfolio. To some extent, this paucity of support for populations is understandable because this diversity goes unnoted unless you happen to stumble into an ethnic enclave such as Miami’s Spanish-speaking Cuban exile neighborhoods, Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, or Yiddish-speaking areas in New York City. But for much of the U.S., English is simply assumed.
Challenges in Accessing Non-English Markets in the U.S.
CSA Research has identified three challenges to greater support for these brands from marketers:
- Diffusion. A population of half a million individuals in one city would stand out and attract attention, but spread it out across 50 states and a population of over 300 million, and it seems to vanish. Although brands rely on websites today, many of their assumptions and spending patterns still date to pre-internet days when advertising would have been on “ethnic” radio stations or in local newspapers that would not have even risen to the attention of Madison Avenue ad buyers.
- Lack of awareness. The widespread assumption, both inside and outside the U.S., is that America is a linguistic wasteland. Most immigrants strive to educate their children in English, and within a few generations their linguistic connection to an ancestral homeland is passive understanding at best, perhaps colored by a few words for foods or particular cultural constructions. With the exception of a few communities, non-English languages have little political clout simply because by the time a group has built up political power, it speaks English. As a result, non-English speakers often find themselves with no effective platform to raise visibility.
- Language diversity. The language spoken by immigrant communities in the U.S. often deviates from standard forms in the “home” country and is heavily inflected by English-isms that may not exist elsewhere. For major non-English languages such as Tagalog in the U.S., finding translators in the first place can be difficult, much less ones who know how Philippine-Americans speak. In addition, education levels in written language are often quite low for some communities. Although LSPs that focus on spoken-language services have the needed networks, their particular focus means they may not be the best suited to deliver written-language content.
Why You Should Support Other Languages
These challenges probably make it sound like addressing these audiences might not be worth the bother, so why would you support other languages in the U.S.? Consider the following three reasons:
- A big opportunity. Cumulatively, Limited English Proficiency (LEP) audiences comprise 14–20% of U.S. GDP, or roughly three to four trillion U.S. dollars. Brands that ignore this overlooked U.S. opportunity often still pursue much smaller opportunities, such as Bulgarian for Bulgaria (with a GDP of just US$68.6 billion). True, some of that support is legally mandated by the EU, but the U.S. LEP market is of a size that few companies would otherwise ignore. It may not be easy to address, but the potential rewards are great.
- Easy market entry. Entering foreign markets is far more expensive than just localizing. Enterprises have to set up logistical chains, establish offices, build partnerships, comply with legal and regulatory requirements, and build up brand awareness. By contrast, additional languages in the U.S. inherit existing investments and increase brand awareness, meaning any gains can be had solely for the cost of localization. Ecommerce breaks down the problems of diffuse and inaccessible markets by extending your reach to anyone with a computer or smartphone, not just those who read a non-English newspaper or listen to local radio. Instead, you add other languages to your site and contract with over-the-phone interpretation services to provide needed support, a proposition far less costly than going to another country.
- Existing language assets. Enterprises probably already have some of the language content they need. By breaking the tie between language and geography, they can provide Spanish, German, or Chinese content for the U.S. by leveraging investments made for foreign markets. True, some adaptation will be required (such as replacing localized EU regulatory notices with US ones or displaying dollar prices instead of those in other currencies), but these changes are manageable. In addition, you may need to update specific terms to reflect how domestic audiences discuss products differently from those in other countries. Explicitly making them and targeting non-English customers in the U.S. also reduces the likelihood that they will visit your brand’s international sites and encounter content that may not apply to them.
Finally, if you head down this path, remember that you need to do the same sorts of market segmentation and analysis you would do for any other target audience. Ethnographic research methods may have entered awareness for the language industry only recently with the LocWorld keynote presentation, but LSPs and localization teams are ideally suited to deliver this sort of service because they are aware of the issues and have the connections needed to do the work. The careful observational methods that ethnographic research entails will also benefit you if you do content audits, market testing, quality evaluation, social media engagement, or any of the other many tasks you should do that involve observing and learning from customers and other stakeholders.
If you need help evaluating the opportunity in the U.S., consult the CSA Research report “Non-English Economic Opportunity in the U.S.” and its accompanying data file, which contains detailed information on 66 non-English languages in the U.S.
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