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SPEAKING IN TONGUES

To compete online in India, businesses will soon have to work in 122 languages

A woman talks on a mobile phone in Mumbai.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Please repeat that in Marathi.
Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

This article is more than 2 years old.

The English language’s global domination seems inevitable. Just last month, for example, the German car company Volkswagen switched its official tongue to English, and a new study revealed that reliance on English is skewing scientific research.

But there are also forces moving in another direction. In India—population 1.25 billion—local language speakers are adopting the internet faster than ever, far outpacing English speakers. That makes the nation “the next frontier in language services,” according to the translation industry publication Slator.

To target the world’s second most populous market as it increasingly goes online, businesses will have to account for its linguistic kaleidoscope. Indians speak 22 official languages (meaning various local authorities work in those tongues), and about 122 languages are considered “major” and spoken widely. Plus there are over 1,600 dialects spoken, and various writing systems with different fonts. Foreigners seeking to translate their websites into Indian most often decided to work on some mix of Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati, Telugu, Malayalam, Urdu, and Oriya.

For the translation business, this rich linguistic tapestry, coupled with the continuing rise in internet adoption, means there’s lots of work lining up. Without the help of translators, reaching the millions of Indians who don’t speak English—estimates range from 80 to 90% of the population, about a billion people—will be impossible. Businesses will need to make themselves understood locally in as many languages as possible.

Since 2014, Google has been working with local companies to add more dialects to its translation software. And other companies are investing in creating their own apps in local languages. For example, Ola Cabs, a local ride-share service, now provides drivers Huawei phones preloaded with an app that allows them to respond to hails in local languages—previously drivers had to respond in English. Similarly, Snapdeal, a popular e-commerce site, has created options for loading its site in Hindi and other languages.

It seems worth the investment. There were more than 460 million internet users in India as of July 2016—still, only about a third of the nation’s population. Among them, local language users numbered nearly 150 million and the group is growing fast. “The number of Internet users in the country will very quickly outrun the number of English speakers, and as a result local language is a very important area of focus for us,” Rohit Bansal, co-founder of Snapdeal, said in 2015 when he announced the rollout of local language applications.

The government’s Digital India campaign, seeking to connect rural India to the web by 2019, is helping drive that growth through investment in wifi infrastructure development in rural areas and by encouraging tech company investment; Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have all participated in Digital India since 2015. The effort has led to more Indians buying smartphones and going online with handheld devices. Plus, the government’s plans to go cashless and the recent demonetization have led to a rise in banking and payment portal app use, driving increased technology adoption and demand for software in local languages to facilitate online financial services and transactions.

In 2015, India received more foreign direct investment than any other nation, attracting about $3 billion more than China and $4 billion more than the US. That is in great part because of India’s untapped market—the millions who have still not gone online, and are expected to soon. But the Indian market won’t be wooed easily, as Marc Zuckerberg learned last February when Facebook offered people in the country free online access—as long as you wanted to just use Facebook. The program was called Free Basics; Indians deemed it not in the spirit of the open web and organized actual and virtual protests to Save The Internet. Regulators ultimately rejected the offer.

Understanding the nuances of a highly complex nation swayed by as many forces as India is no mean feat. But the Facebook fiasco showed that to win the hearts of the nation’s consumers, companies will need to speak to the people. English alone won’t suffice. To do it right, foreign companies will have to follow the lead of locals like Ola Cabs and Snapdeal.

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