Over 20% of people in the U.S. over the age of five speak a language other than English at home. Spanish is the nation’s second most frequently spoken language, but I bet you did not know that Vietnamese is second to Spanish in Texas, or that Russian is big in Oregon.
Many people, many tongues
I had a strong sense of the language diversity in the U.S. but I didn’t know the depth of it until a fantastic infographic from Slate came across my screen this week. This graphic fanned the interest of just about everyone in our industry because it was so cool. Based on a U.S. census report on languages spoken in the U.S., it shows the most commonly spoken language in each state aside from English and Spanish.
The main purpose of this report was to see what part of the population may need help in understanding English: people who do not have strong command of English can (and should) get help accessing government, legal, financial, educational or medical services. With this census data, companies and government entities are able to make legal, financial and marketing decisions about how to support these populations.
Fourteen million households in the U.S. do not use English as their primary language at home – that’s 60.6 million people. The Slate infographic shows 10 languages or so — mostly French and German — but the census report lists 39 languages identified as being spoken in the US. Certainly there are classmates at your child’s school who don’t speak English primarily at home; you may have a colleague or neighbor in a like situation. I do, in all three cases.
(Note: the report says that by some indices there are actually 381 languages. That total represents variations among these 39 languages. Spanish alone has what can be considered 26 dialects coming from 26 Spanish-speaking countries such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, México, and Spain).
People prefer to buy and use products when materials are provided in their own language. Are North Americans with varying degrees of English competence underserved in terms of content in their own language? If you market to United States customers then the language demographic in the United States should be something you care about. Maybe English-only content is inhibiting or preventing sales of your product. Yet, how do you decide whether to localize for these multiple U.S. markets or not? And if you have already localized into say, Spanish, then do you need a U.S. version of the same?
Four things to consider
- How bilingual is your target market? When self-reporting, 77% of people who spoke a language other than English at home reported that they spoke English “very well” or “well.” While generally people do prefer to receive information in their own language, many are competent enough to not need content in their native language. For example, the census report shows that nearly 95% of the German population in the U.S. speak English well or very well. If your target speaks English “very well” then you probably do not need to localize materials for them.
- How many people speak that language primarily? Spanish is a no-brainer with over 35.5 million speakers in the U.S. There could be arguments for French, German, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog with around 1.5 million speakers each. (Chinese tops the list at 2.8 million people speaking Chinese primarily at home). However, there are just over 600,000 people speaking Polish at home. You would prioritize Tagalog over Polish if you had a limited budget.
- What growth is expected? Non-English language use in the U.S. population is still growing by family expansion, and by immigration. It makes sense to look at speaking populations that are growing (immigration) rather than shrinking (aging). From page 7 of the census report: ‘South Asian languages in particular experienced high levels of growth. “Other Asian languages,” a group comprising mostly the South Asian languages, Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil, grew by 115 percent, and Hindi grew by 105 percent. “Other Indic languages” (languages such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi) grew by 86 percent.’
- Chinese is not Chinese is not Chinese. That is to say that there are varieties of Chinese within the U.S. Minority languages also tend to blend with majority languages: grammatical structures are mutated, words are adopted, new words created. Some dual-language speakers use both in a blend called “code-switching.” Regardless, the Chinese language spoken in the U.S. could well be very different than the Chinese spoken in Mainland China. You may need to find out, perhaps by a language study of the target market, if the language is so different in the U.S. that the localization project you completed for China will “work” for your target population in the U.S. This is undoubtedly true for Spanish; most localization companies sell a dialect of Spanish for the U.S.
What percent of the 60,577,020 million people speaking languages other than English at home are buying your product?
What languages is your company considering for targeting the non-English speakers in the U.S. market?