India vs Latin America: Similarities and differences

India and Latin America are examples of emerging markets of increasing importance for localization. Both have huge territories (Latin America is 20 million square kilometers, and India covers 3.2 million square kilometers) and populations (Latin America with 600 million, India with nearly 1.3 billion) and share similarities in history and economic conditions. Hence, it could make sense to throw them both into the same “emerging markets” category for localization.

Both regions have long histories and cultures spanning millennia. In fact, some of the so-called “cradles of civilization” — areas where human cultures arose independently — are located there: Indus Valley on the Indian subcontinent, Norte Chico and Mesoamerica in Latin America.

However, their more recent histories have been marked by colonization by Western powers. In the case of Latin America, this began with Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492 and continued until the second half of the 20th century when the last territories gained independence. The Indian subcontinent was ruled by the British Crown from 1858 until the 1947 independence and breakup into India and Pakistan.

The experience left an indelible mark in both cases. However, the much longer period of colonial rule and harsher treatment of the locals meant that Latin America was affected more severely. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between the Spanish and the Portuguese, who rapidly conquered vast territories. The two empires were soon joined by other European nations, especially England, France and the Netherlands, followed by mass importation of African slaves. The era is known as the Columbian Exchange, a widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations, communicable disease and ideas between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres, which changed Latin America (and Europe) forever.

In the case of India, the British Raj (“rule” in Hindustani) was comparatively not as harsh. Local Indian rulers of the so-called “Princely States” were given significant autonomy, and during the period British India was a founding member of the League of Nations, of the United Nations and even participated in the Olympic Games. Historians may continue to argue whether the long-term impact of British rule was beneficial or detrimental to the economic development of India, but it’s clear that it was not as exploitative and destructive as the plantation colonialism in most of Latin America.

Since independence the fortunes of both India and Latin America have been different. For many years, Latin America seemed to be permanently stuck halfway down the road to economic development, going through periods of brutal military dictatorships, crippling inflation, foreign debt crises and spiraling violence, including narcoguerrilla groups. Intimidation of the local and international business and political communities was common. Only in recent years is there a sense of some stabilization and peace, for example with the successful disarmament of the paramilitary groups in Colombia.

As for India, after the bloody separation of Pakistan in 1947, the country has managed to stay relatively stable. It has remained a democracy with civil liberties, an active legislature and largely independent media. Economic liberalization has created a large urban middle class, and transformed India into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies with significant geopolitical clout. Yet, it is also shaped by seemingly unyielding poverty, religious and caste-related violence, separationist movements in the north of the country and recurring tensions with neighbors China and Pakistan.


Due to the long period of colonization and suppression of local cultures by the colonizers, Latin America emerged as a collection of independent states that are nowadays relatively homogenous linguistically. Portuguese enjoys a dominant position in Brazil and Spanish is used nearly everywhere else. The remainder are smaller nations or territories that speak creole variants of English, French or Dutch. The native languages of the Americas went into rapid decline throughout the colonial times, with few surviving to the present day. The only exception is the Guaraní language, widely spoken and recognized in Paraguay.

Despite decolonization, race and skin color correlate very strongly with social and economic status in Latin America. The rich and powerful strata are dominated by whites, while the poorest strata is made up primarily of indigenous peoples and blacks. Similarly, languages are a status symbol, and even the major minority languages like Aymara and Quechua linger on the fringes with very little official support or presence in the media. New generations usually don’t see them as useful and their decline continues.

At the same time, there are no technical challenges when it comes to localization in the top languages used in Latin America. They are all written using Latin alphabet, and benefit from established solutions created for their European equivalents.

In India, the multitude of indigenous tongues did not get decimated as severely during the British rule. Although English replaced Persian as the official language in 1837 and became the language of the intellectual elite, native languages continued undisturbed.

After gaining independence in 1947, the leaders of the new nation recognized an opportunity to unite the many regions of India with a common language. Gandhi tirelessly supported Hindustani, which is a compromise between Hindi and Urdu. English was unacceptable despite its prominence, as the language of an ousted colonial power. Hindi claimed the greatest number of speakers and was closely related to several other widely-spoken languages. In the end, the Indian constitution of 1950 declared it to be the official language of the Union, which led to violent protests especially in the south by those who felt that Hindi was being imposed on them.

Nowadays, the basis for official languages in India remains in the constitution along with various amendments, especially the Eighth Schedule, which lists 22 official languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Tami, and many others. Each of India’s 29 states and seven union territories was able to choose a language to be used in formal proceedings there.

The result is a nation where dozens of languages are spoken on a daily basis. Although for a long time Western companies considered English as good enough to reach the affluent Indian customer, more recently there’s a growing recognition that Hindi and other local languages should receive serious consideration. Along with this demand, solutions for script encoding, typing and web publishing are quickly being developed.

While India is one country with many languages written in many distinct scripts, Latin America is many countries where only two languages are largely sufficient: Spanish and Portuguese. Although there are linguistic differences compared to the Spanish and Portuguese spoken in Europe, and also differences between countries within Latin America, the localization challenges and complexity cannot be compared to those of India.

Emerging market localization

Does it then make sense to include both locales in a special category as “emerging markets” from the point of view of localization? My answer is a qualified yes.

Both are emerging markets from the economic point of view, as we can clearly see from GDP and more. Interest in localization increases along with the size of economies and spending power, and for many companies — both buyers of language services and language service providers — this means they will be attempting to localize for new countries and cultures for the first time. That requires more care and attention than established languages to avoid blunders. If using a special category helps to make this point, that’s a good enough reason to do so.