The online dominance of English is fading: how will that affect your business?

Why the Next Billion won't understand you

The tech industry is obsessed with the 'Next Billion'. Look at the headcount, and it's no wonder. Since 2006, the number of people using the internet around the world has doubled. In April 2015 it stood at 3.1 billion. The Next Billion was coined as a phrase a few years ago, and doesn't have a timescale – it's a rolling concept and shorthand for the immense opportunity that's coming the way of the tech industry.

At this precise moment, the Next Billion refers to those people coming online in the next five years. GSMA predicts that there will be 3.8 billion web users by 2020. That's about half of the global population, the majority of whom will use smartphones and tablets.

It's a huge growth opportunity for anyone who has any stake in the planet's digital economy, but there's a nasty sting in the tail that the tech industry likes to ignore; few of the Next Billion speak English as their first language.

For now, there's a huge advantage to anyone working in the medium of English – over 55% of the internet is written in English despite the fact that only 5% of the world's population speak it as their first language. With the online dominance of English quickly being eroded, is the tech industry getting lost in translation?

Mii phone

Tech markets are becoming increasingly global

Why is English slipping as the dominant language?

With small birth rates and economic growth in single digits – if that – it's no surprise that English speaking areas of the world will not be the inheritors of the digital economy they pioneered.

"Global population growth is highest in Africa, South Asia and Middle East, areas where English is not the predominant language," says Ian Brooks, Digital Strategist at Lionbridge, a professional translation and localisation agency. "This, coupled with the fact that the largest and fastest growing economies are mostly in Africa, Asia and South America, means that English is no longer the only language that companies have to cater for."

Ian Brooks Digital Strategist at Lionbridge

Ian Brooks, Digital Strategist at Lionbridge

It's easy to be arrogant about the dominance of English on the internet, but it really shouldn't be that way – and it won't be for much longer. "We have to remember that English isn't the dominant language across the globe," says Ariel King, Content Strategist at Arena Media, which helps challenger or new-to-market brands. "As more countries become more connected online, it's only natural that we should see the languages used online having a truer reflection of the proportion of languages used in the world."

Not surprisingly, Chinese is the most natively spoken language of all at 1.39 billion, with Hindi-Urdu next at 588 million in second place. English claims third spot at 527 million, but it's only fractionally ahead of Arabic. Any dominance English has on the internet won't last long.