Photo from Vico Biscotti

Should I Publish in English?

Read on Medium.

Publishing in English may be difficult, for non-native speakers. Also, English speakers may have reasons for publishing in local languages, apart from reaching a wider audience.

It seemed to me that English was the obvious choice for publishing when locale content is not strictly involved. Was I wrong? Seen the effort for translation, and the difficulty for me to write directly in English, I’d prefer to check better with some statistics too.

I supposed- by a rough estimation- that English was more or less 20 times more diffused than my own language, Italian. Also, it’s an increasingly popular second/third language. Was I right? What about the other main languages? Should diffusion be the main criteria for deciding the language of publication?

The linguistic demography

I’ll take into consideration the main 10 world languages, plus Italian as an example of a minor language. I assumed Wikipedia data are reliable enough for the purpose (based on the 2019 edition of Ethnologue).

Estimates on the top languages in terms of first spoken language are:

  • Mandarin Chinese (921 million)
  • Spanish (463 million)
  • English (370 million)
  • Hindi (342 million)
  • Arabic (290 million – data of 2016)
  • Bengali (228 million)
  • Portuguese (228 million)
  • Russian (154 million)
  • Japanese (126 million)
  • Italian (66 million)

Mmh… I guess that I have to go into more details. Else, I have to learn Chinese.

We know that English is a common second language in many countries. So, let’s check stats on second languages.

  • English (898 million, 1,268 total)
  • Mandarin Chinese (199 million, that makes 1,120 total, with native speakers)
  • Hindi (295 million, 637 total)
  • Spanish (75 million, 538 total)
  • Standard Arabic (132 million, 422 total – data of 2016)
  • French (199 million, 277 total)
  • Bengali (37 million, 265 total)
  • Russian (104 million, 258 total)
  • Portuguese (24 million, 252 total)
  • Indonesian (155 million, 199 total)
  • Italian (3 million, 68 total)

That makes more sense. If I take Italian as an example, English seems to be around 19x more diffused. And many publications suggest that the number of English speakers is way more.

Anyway, these stats are not precise for many reasons:

  • Inherent difficulties of worldwide censuses, included the difficulty in identifying languages.
  • Among multilingual persons, chances that one of the “extra” languages is English are significant. Many could not consider English as a second language, but they’re able to understand it at some level nonetheless.
  • The level of knowledge of a language is not clearly identified by statistics. It’s likely that they read/speak English as a second language better than Chinese.
  • English is more and more the lingua franca of Western countries, and of global business. Also, it’s taught in many schools.

Let’s focus on the Web

Now that we have an overview of demographic stats, let’s try a more pragmatic approach. Let’s see the numbers of Internet users by language. They refer to a more recent period (2020) than the above data, but we are interested in rough ratios.

  • English (1,186 million, on an estimated population of 1,531 million)
  • Chinese (888 million, on 1,477 million)
  • Spanish (364 million, on 517 million)
  • Arabic (237 million, on 448 million)
  • Indonesian / Malaysian (198 million, on 306 million)
  • Portuguese (172 million, on 291 million)
  • French (152 million, on 432 million)
  • Japanese (119 million, on 126 million)
  • Russian (116 million, on 146 million)
  • German (93 million, on 99 million)
  • Italian (55 million, on 59 million)

English is confirmed to be the most common Internet language. Together, English and Chinese represent a significant portion of the user languages. English is nearly 22x than Italian.

Moreover, Internet penetration map has some similarity with the map of countries with English speaking population (the best penetration is in North America and Europe). This means something, if you are interested in e-publishing.

Let’s return to decisions

Now I have some numbers. By these numbers, it seems confirmed that the English language gives me a rough 20x more exposure. If I’m addressing to a possible global audience I should with no doubt use English, else I’m losing a lot of opportunities.

Should you use English?

Like millions of other questions, the answer is “it depends.” On what?

  • On your cultural area. Cultural differences across continents are the most important, especially speaking of East/West. Barriers are not only about language but about content too. And style, and marketing and so on. Get they listen to you in a cultural area from which you are stranger is very hard, unless your target is making your culture known in other countries or your content is really cultural independent. If you really want to reach a foreign area, usually the best option is to find a partner there, or go there.
  • On the diffusion of your own language. If you are Chinese, English may be convenient for you too, but you already have a huge audience.
  • On your intent (alias addressed audience). If you make a living on products/services locally based and want your publishing to be self-promotional, you should obviously use at least the local language. If the world knows you, except the area where you want to sell, your marketing definitely has gaps. Even if you are promoting global services/products, having a strong presence in your country is usually a plus.  On the contrary, if you aim at worldwide notoriety, English is mandatory.
  • On your knowledge of English. You should have at least a basic knowledge in any case. If you don’t know English well you should take into consideration how much your content is locally related. If it’s really global content, make an effort, and write in English anyway. Study, practice and improve it. If it’s only partially a global content, consider using your own language, or multilingual publishing. As long as your English is a problem, catching opportunities with your own language may be better than nothing.

Sketching a simplification…

The less your language is widespread, the more the “use English” zone expands.

Near the red line between English and local, a bilingual approach makes sense (or multilingual, in case of companies). Of course, the effort is worth when your audience — current or planned in the near future — is wide enough, else it could be better to choose a single language.

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