Boosting a website with community translation

Which languages give websites the best local audience? Even websites with a target readership within a single country can benefit from translation. What are those benefits for sites in English-speaking countries? And how do you choose which languages to translate into?

Languages matter – even at home

Whether designed to inform, to entertain or to sell a product, a website aims to engage an audience. That engagement is more likely through a visitor’s native language. Research has shown that the majority of consumers only buy from websites with information presented in their language (Common Sense Advisory: “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters”). The higher the value of the product or service, the more pronounced this effect becomes.

The potential audiences reached through translation are not small. In the UK, some 7% of the adult population do not speak English at home as their first language, while a quarter of London school pupils have a first language other than English. In Ireland, 11% of residents speak a language other than English at home – a figure that rises to 19% for Australia. In the US, over 20% of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

Translation languages for UK websites

In the UK, the Census collects information about the whole population once every ten years. The last Census in 2011 included the questions “What is your main language?” and “How well can you speak English?” Unfortunately, because the Census collects so much information which takes a long time to process, the full answers to these questions have not been released yet – but they will be made public very soon, and definitely before February 2013. In the meantime, the most up-to-date Census figures on language date back to 2001 – which is not that helpful. For instance, the number of Polish speakers in the UK has undoubtedly increased greatly in the last decade.

Edit: further figures from the UK Census 2011 have now been released, and I will write a detailed analysis soon. However, they broadly support the conclusions of other studies and the discussion below. Some 5% of households in England and Wales do not have any adult members who speak English as their first or preferred language. Of those living in England and Wales but born outside of the UK, the top 10 countries of origin are India, Poland, Pakistan, Ireland, Germany, Bangladesh, Nigeria, South Africa, China and the USA.

While we are waiting for the latest Census figures in the UK to be processed, we need to use some common sense and informed guesswork. Everyday experience can be useful here. In many parts of the UK, consider not only Polish, Romanian and Brazilian Portuguese for recent arrivals but Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, Traditional Chinese and French for West Africa too.

Apart from common sense, there are some helpful statistics we can make use of while we wait for the Census figures.

The Greater London Authority website publishes a detailed breakdown of languages spoken at home by London school pupils, as collected in the 2008 Annual School Census. The overall picture for London shows that languages worth considering for translation include Yoruba, Portuguese, Polish, Spanish, Albanian, Akan, Farsi, Tagalog as well as Bengali, Urdu, Somali, Panjabi, Gujarati, Arabic, Turkish, Tamil, French, Chinese or Hindi. Bear in mind that for historical reasons many European languages are spoken in countries beyond Europe (albeit usually with some differences to the “European” variant). For instance, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, Spanish in much of the rest of Latin America and French in large parts of Africa.

Those who know London well may enjoy this interactive map produced by the GLA showing the geographic distribution of languages across the city:

What these statistics do not tell us is how many of these households speak fluent English – a skill which we would expect to be more prevalent in more long-established groups. It may also be that a survey of school-age children under-represents recently arrived, young immigrants who may be more likely to be childless (or whose children may still be in their home country). This is important, as this group are least likely to speak fluent English.

It is also difficult to say how these figures generalise across the UK. Another study on the GLA website reveals the proportion of the adult population who speak English at home as their first language is 78% in London, but 93% in the West Midlands and above 95% in the rest of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, the figure is lower (89%) – no doubt in part due to native Welsh speakers. So London is atypical, but it does give a glimpse of the distribution of languages, and certainly provides food for thought in selecting targets for translation.

Choosing languages for Irish websites

The Irish census in 2011 found more than half a million residents who spoke a foreign language at home. Polish was by far the most common, followed by French, Lithuanian and German. One in six of these foreign language speakers – mostly Lithuanian (30 percent) and Latvian (29 percent) nationals – felt that they spoke English “not well” or “not at all”,. Around 1.77 million people said they could speak some Irish (although only 1 in 3 of 10-19 year olds said they could). But only 1.8% of the population over the age of three said they spoke Irish daily outside the school curriculum.

US and Canada: choosing foreign languages for websites

In the US, Spanish is the first choice translation language. It is the main language spoken at home by more than a tenth of the US population – some 37 million people, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. The next largest language is listed by the US Census Bureau as “Chinese”, with 2.5 million speakers, followed by French, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Korean is another fast growing language.

In Canada, one in five of the population reported speaking a language other than English or French at home. A similar proportion, nearly seven million Canadians, speak French most often at home. Among those who speak a language other than French or English, the fastest growing are Tagalog, Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi.

Choosing languages for Australian and New Zealand websites

The Australian census in 2011 found 19% of those aged 5 years and over spoke a language other than English at home. The shifting nature of Australia’s multiculturalism was revealed by Mandarin overtaking Italian to become the most spoken. These were followed by Arabic, Cantonese, Greek and Vietnamese. Interestingly only 37.5% of Mandarin speakers felt they spoke English “very well”, underlining the potential importance of translation.

In New Zealand, the 2006 Census revealed that slightly more than 2% of people do not speak English. After English, the most common language in which people could converse about everyday matters was Māori, spoken by 4% of the population, followed by Samoan. New Zealand’s changing ethnic composition is reflected in the increasing diversity of languages spoken, with noted increases in Hindi, Mandarin and Korean. The next census is due to take place in 2013.

Should the website’s topic affect the choice of language?

Sometimes the choice of language is informed by a website’s target audience. For instance, a company providing shipping to west Africa might translate into French as well as possibly Yoruba, Igbo and Akan. In 2009, Diabetes UK highlighted the prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes among South Asian people who live in the UK. So it’s no surprise their website has a wide range of translated publications available in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Urdu.