English + Chinese = Language Oligopolies

The Fast Shrinking Long Tail of Languages

World GDP by Language

The International Monetary Fund released the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) estimates for 2017 and trends regarding the importance of languages in generating GDP numbers are taking shape.

Although the total estimated GDP in 2017 has shrunk compared to 2013, the share belonging to world powers has increased nicely, indicating that larger world economies continue to cannibalize smaller ones. This has created serious economic ramifications on the  languages that are least important commercially around the world.

By analyzing the GDP data based on the official written language(s) of a country, the 13 essential languages that have emerged as the most used while transacting commerce in their order of importance are English, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, French, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, Italian, Malay, Korean and Russian. Combined, they generated 90% of the world’s GDP in 2017!

Language Priorities by the Numbers

Continued economic and demographic growth in English speaking countries and in other major economic powerhouses in a pie that has has not grown over the past 5 years, has significantly reduced the relative economic value of non-essential languages. In this 5 year span, the language category under Other, which constitutes hundreds of commercial languages other than the 13 listed above, has shrunk by 43%, while English and Chinese combined have risen by 19% to cover roughly half of worldwide GDP.

Language Oligopoly

GDP Languages 2017

“Prominent world commercial languages are becoming more dominant in today’s global economy”, said Nabil Freij, President of GlobalVision International that specializes in providing translation and localization services to international corporations around the world. “As more economic barriers are systematically torn down or overcome, language barriers seem to be slowly dissipating with them. An oligopoly in the language order has been established with English and Chinese dominating the GDP space”, Mr. Freij added.

Perhaps also, the abundance of adequate, integrated machine translation tools behind web browsers, online retail sites and social media platforms has facilitated the conduction of business in the main languages these tools effectively translate to.

Emerging Language Trends

GDP Languages 2013

The dramatic shrinking of the GDP pie for Other languages may be a sustainable trend. With an increasing number of consumers all over the world opting to learn English and showing willingness to interact with it online, the number of essential languages may even be shrinking in the not too distant future.

The two largest world populations currently live in China and India. India continues to rely extensively on English in its educational programs, government and business. In addition to Hindi, English is an official language of the country. In India, English may be the common denominator among its varying cultures encompassing 1642 internally recognized spoken dialects, of which 150 are widely used! It is important to note here that Bengali is another language significantly used in many parts of India. As India’s economy and GDP numbers grow, the importance of English will further grow continuing to support our oligopoly assumption.

The Arab League, while its population has consistently grown year after year, economically, it has not grown in any significant way. Egypt, the most populated Arabic state, is struggling with rampant inflation. Many oil-producing Arab countries are mired with political problems and most continue to deeply depend financially on the production and export of oil. Oil trade accounts for 80% of total exports in half of the oil-exporting economies, including many Arab nations. By the way, OPEC’s official language is English!

Furthermore, GDP attributed to French, Portuguese, Italian and Russian speaking countries has declined some over the past 5 years, but has shown potential for rebound. We will update this post once the IMF releases the final 2017 GDP numbers, then track them over the coming years to see what will transpire.

Invest in Localization Instead

This is very good news for companies that don’t want to invest in the long tail of languages. By focusing on the 13 essential ones, they can reach 90+% of the world’s consumers enabling them to conserve their translation costs and perhaps invest more on product development or product localization. Localization enables more useful customization of a product to meet certain regional and locale needs, leading to better market penetration and higher product acceptance.

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