India’s internet economy has been growing rapidly for the past few years and is becoming a hub of ecommerce activity. In fact, India is the fastest-growing ecommerce market in the world. By 2021, India’s ecommerce industry is projected to reach $84 billion. This market was only worth $38.5 billion in 2017.
The internet economy at large in India is projected to be worth $250 billion by the end of 2020—a market global businesses would be foolish to ignore.
The rapid rise of India’s digital economy is largely due to the increased smartphone and internet penetration that is currently happening in the nation. In 2007, only 4% of India’s population used the internet. In 2019, over 52% of the country’s population used it. By the year 2021, there will be about 829 million internet users in the country, which translates to about 62% of the country’s population. Of the new internet users coming online in India, the majority of them speak local Indian languages, not English.
Due to the strong economic growth and increasing business opportunities, companies seeking to operate in India need to understand its languages for translation and localization purposes. Here is an overview of the most used languages—the ones that must be considered if you want to succeed in this diverse market.
Languages of India
The Constitution of India officially recognizes 22 languages in the country, but 89% of the Indian population speaks the top ten languages, which are:
Here is an overview of the top five.
Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, spoken by 528 million people or roughly 41% of the population. Behind Mandarin, Spanish and English, Hindi is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world.
Hindi is predominantly spoken in northern India and is the official language of the Indian government. Also, many people in Nepal, Fiji and Afghanistan can speak and understand Hindi. This is partially due to geographic proximity and partially due to the popularity of the Bollywood movie industry. Hindi is the closest thing that India has to a universal, national language.
Bengali, also known as Bengala, is the second most used Indian language. This language is spoken by roughly 8% of India’s population, which is about 105 million people. Bengali is mostly spoken in lower Assam, Tripura and West Bengal because of these regions’ proximity to Bangladesh, whose official language is also Bengali.
Marathi is the third most widely spoken Indian language, spoken by roughly 83 million people or about 7% of the population. It is predominantly spoken in western Indian states like Goa and Maharashtra. Marathi originally descended from Sanskrit, like many other Indian languages, and is said to be over 1,300 years old. There are 42 regional dialects, several of which sound very similar to Eastern Hindi.
Telugu is the fourth most spoken Indian language. There are roughly 81 million speakers and it is spoken in a variety of states and regions, including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Yanam, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The first known written appearance of the Telugu language was on coins from 400 BCE, making the language over 2,400 years old. Telugu is part of the Dravidian family of some 70 languages spoken primarily in South Asia.
Tamil, coming in at number five, is spoken by roughly 6% of the population, which is about 67 million people. This language is mostly spoken in southern India in places like Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. It is also regularly spoken in nations like Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, South Africa and Malaysia.
India and English
In addition to the list above, English is also heavily used in India, largely due to the colonization by the English in the 1800s and early 1900s. These days, English is largely known as the language of business. Most people in India do not speak English as a first language, but learn it because they recognize its global business importance. It is estimated that roughly 12-30 percent of the Indian population speaks English. This translates to roughly 140-400 million people, making it the second most widely spoken language in India.
However, this doesn’t mean that all Indians that speak English are completely fluent in it. In fact, many people may only have a basic understanding. The English language is very heavily used in major urban areas such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi. Coincidentally, these are the areas where many English-speaking tourists tend to go.
There is also a language known as “Hinglish” that is a mixture of Hindi and English. It is estimated that roughly 100-350 million people in India speak Hinglish, many of whom also speak English. These polyglots prefer Hinglish because it gives a sense of being modern yet also rooted in traditional Indian culture.
Making a choice?
When it comes to personal consumer choices, many Indians have a strong bias towards brands that speak to them in their native tongue. For this reason, it is crucial for all brands expanding into India to be able to properly localize and translate for each individual Indian state.
Many companies make the mistake of thinking that simply translating into Hindi is satisfactory, but in reality, the specific region in India in which a company wants to do business will have a major impact on which language it should use for localization and translation. In order to optimize trust and build the strongest possible customer relationships, businesses need to make sure that they choose the right language when marketing and selling to their target audience.
But how do you choose?
- Depending on your budget, you might have to hedge your bets if you can’t afford to localize into every language. You stand a better chance of communicating with the largest audience if you stick to the high-demand languages, which are Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil. If your budget is healthier, then include additional languages.
- You can check Wikipedia for the number of articles it supports in a particular language. More than 100,000 articles in a single language is an indicator of significant online activity by the speakers of that language.
- Study your website’s analytics to determine which regions are sending you the most traffic. Combine this with data from your sales and customer service departments to understand where prospects and customers are coming from. If these regions match where you are also seeing a lot of online activity, then you know where to focus on.
- Investigate governmental language regulations. In Canada, for example, product packaging has to be in both English and French by law. Also check the requirements in your industry; if you operate in a highly regulated vertical like medical devices or finance, you may be required to support a certain set of languages.
- Snoop on your competitors in the region. Your strategy might be different than your competitors’, so this isn’t an exact science, but it’s good data to use in your market analysis. If you understand the rationale behind why they’re using or excluding a particular language, you’ll be able to use their research to your advantage. You can go a step further and look at their sales data—what was their performance like before and after translation, and what language-specific insights can you gather from this?
India is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture. Because it is so vast in size and population, it is no surprise that it also has impressive language diversity.
One day, it is possible that one of the Indian languages could take a stronghold and be used by the majority of the nation. Hinglish also appears to be growing in popularity due to its unique ability to blend western and eastern as well as modern and traditional. It will be interesting to see how this unique blended language progresses in the future.
But for businesses who want to enter the Indian market, use our advice and insights above to craft a strategic localization plan that accommodates both your budget and your target audiences.