In the English-speaking Western world, many people assume that the most common language on Earth is English. It seems to be spoken in nearly every country, at least conversationally if not fluently. It would follow that translating a document or website into English would reach the most people world-wide. However, this thinking is not entirely correct.
The title of most commonly used language on Earth actually belongs to Chinese Mandarin. This language is spoken by more people than any other. Around 1.1 billion people call this their native tongue. Hindi is spoken by 360 million people, followed by Spanish with around 340 million native speakers. English comes in fourth with about 322 million native speakers using the language.
By sheer volume of native speaker, it would seem that Mandarin is Earth’s most common language. But what if you were to consider the number of countries in which a particular language is used? This changes the answer considerably. English is spoken in around 115 countries, ranking it first. This includes countries where English has either full or partial legal status or is an influential minority language.
English is the official language of 52 countries. However, one must understand that neither the US, United Kingdom, nor Australia has declared an official language. These are the countries where English has the strongest impact in terms of native speakers and influences.
When translating documents or instruction for worldwide impact, there are six languages that are most prevalent and should be considered for foreign brand analysis. These are Chinese (in three major dialects), English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and Russian. Each one has its own surprises when it comes to direct translation, especially when it comes to names and their connotations.
One language may be the most commonly used or spoken by the largest number of people, but there is no one “universal” language for translation. Depending on your target market, you may need to consider more than one of the most influential languages for the most successful final product.