Over 7000 languages are spoken in the world today, but not many are represented online

14 December 2018

50% of the world will soon be online. To help the next 50% join them, we must make sure services and content speak their language.


From giant balloons to orbiting satellites, much has been made of efforts to expand internet connectivity and reach new people in new places. On the ground, 97% of all intercontinental internet data is transferred through 300 underwater cables that run a total of 550,000 miles.  

Behind the endless stretches of wires and cables, there are over 4 billion people who use the internet, with billions yet to be connected. To build a digital world where anyone can use the internet in the way they choose to, we need services, products and content that cater to all languages.

As highlighted in our 2017 Connecting Voices report, even when the physical infrastructure exists, other barriers affect people’s ability to access, use and engage fully with the internet. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) now suggest that the main barrier to internet access is not network availability, but instead issues such as illiteracy, affordability and the perceived relevance of digital services and content.   

In this blog we look at the availability of services and content in local languages. We consider how this impacts online participation, and what can be done to bridge language gaps and ensure sustained and diverse content creation.

Languages in real life vs Languages online

Over 7000 languages are spoken across the world today. Chinese, the language with the most native speakers, has 13 variations, whilst Similarly, Arabic has 20 variations, reflecting the wide range of countries and cultures it is spoken in.

Despite the rich variety of languages that exist offline, the languages used online tell a different story. In the mid-1990s it was estimated that English made up 80% of all online content. That percentage has fallen a little, but a handful of languages still dominate, with estimates that 80% of online content is available in only one of 10 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, German, French, Russian, and Korean.

So where does that leave speakers of other languages? Hindi, for example, is spoken by 260 million people, and is the 6th most spoken language worldwide. But when Hindi speakers come online, they will only find 0.1% of internet content served to them in their own language. 

Something for everyone - or only a chosen few?

If you speak English, you are likely to always be able to find content, services and information that are relevant to you, through searching a particular term, or through browsing online resources like crowdsourced encyclopaedias. However, If you only speak Bengali or Swahili, your experience will be severely limited. Not only does this have an impact on individual experiences, it leaves the internet with what researchers have called ‘huge information vacuums in non-dominant languages’ where people, places and cultures appear to not to exist online.

This links into wider debates on local content, a term not often talked about outside of internet policy discussions but which It can include anything from entertainment, information, platforms selling local products, or just news and services that are in demand locally. Local content is key to increasing participation, for the simple reason that people will only use the internet if it is useful, interesting and meets their expectations.

Language barrier leaving many consumers behind

Lack of broader language provision can not only affect people’s ability to produce, interact with and access information online, but hinder people’s ability to use essential services. Consumers International’s Rwandan member ADECOR state that many consumers struggle to access key online services such as mobile banking, because all products and services are only offered in English. Rwanda has three official languages; Kinyarwanda spoken by 93% of the population, French (6%) and English spoken by 0.1%. Therefore, only offering services in English severely limits users’ ability to use them to their full potential.  As we mentioned in a previous blog, many consumers in India are also excluded from the benefits of voice-activated technology because 90% of the voice assistants available in the country only support English.

Can tech solutions bridge the language gap?

Over the past five years we have seen an increase in technology-based solutions helping to bridge the language divide. Tools that allow internet users to translate services and content more easily are now readily available, such as Google Translate or the Microsoft Language Portal.

Tech start-up Localization lab translates internet security apps and services into a wide range of languages such as Basque, Shona, Azerbaijani and Burmese. Their aim is to expand the reach of both internet freedom and online consumer safety tools. They have produced many internet security guides from how to avoid phishing attacks in Swahili to information on how to set up private messaging services in Burmese.  

Media outlets are also diversifying their content. The BBC now offer a news site written exclusively in West African pidgin English, a largely oral language, demonstrating that even oral languages can be adapted and standardised to a formal news reporting format.

Beyond the quick fix: diversifying the internet

Whilst translation services offer immediate remedies to barriers of communication, they only provide a short-term answer to a long-term problem. To truly bridge the divide, communities need to have the resources, knowledge and skills to produce relevant content for themselves, or to access content that is relevant to them. This might be through locally hosted internet exchange points which can help create local and regional ecosystems for internet content and system quality. Or through local tech creation hubs which give start-ups in developing countries access to business support, training and investment.

As discussions about how to get the next 50% connected continue, there needs to be a wider recognition amongst consumer groups, service providers and policy makers, that language shapes our experiences online. More effort also needs to be focused on ensuring all internet users can find content that is relevant to them in languages that they use every day.

At Consumers International, we want to see broader uptake of the internet through inclusive, relevant and affordable digital services. Consumer organisations, policy-makers, businesses and civil society must be ready to share knowledge and expertise – thinking globally but also taking local consumer needs into consideration.

By embracing the need for local content and local language provision, our digital world can be a place that celebrates local cultures, and where your language does not affect your ability to participate or belong.