Speaking in tongues

Religious leaders have long understood that translation is fundamental to growth. So it’s not surprising that Ethnologue, the most authoritative directory of the world’s languages, was created and is maintained by a nonprofit Christian organization, SIL International, founded with Bible translation in mind.

According to Ethnologue, there are more than 7,000 languages in use across the planet. And although the internet is more than 30 years old, linguistically it remains, at best, a young adult.

While there is no website (yet) that comes close to supporting all 7,000 languages, there are a handful of websites that are doing their very best to get there — and you may be surprised to learn what the world’s most linguistically-diverse website is right now.

Is it Google or Facebook? Is it Wikipedia? Not exactly.

While Wikipedia, Google and Facebook are among the leaders in languages at 298, 172 and 107 respectively, they don’t come even close to the website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

That’s right. The world’s most linguistic website is managed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and can be found at www.JW.org. 

The JW.org website supports more than 675 written languages. And it doesn’t stop at written languages; it also supports more than 90 different sign languages as well as downloadable PDFs in languages ranging from Adyghe to Zazaki, for a total of 941 languages.

Apple, by comparison, supports a mere 34 languages.  And Amazon, the company now synonymous with world domination, supports just 15 languages. Based on my studies, the world’s leading brands support an average of 31 languages, adding roughly one new language per year.

Contrast this with the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with support for 115 languages, followed by the Christian Science website, with support for 22 languages. It’s worth noting that some of these more recently “emergent” religions also tend to be more linguistically diverse than the websites of “older” religions. For example, the Religion of Islam website (www.islamreligion.com) supports just 12 languages, and The Holy See and Chabad websites fare most poorly, with nine languages and eight languages, respectively. While it may be a stretch to link language growth with the growth of religions, it’s not a stretch to state that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a better grasp of how to communicate with people around the world than most corporations.

Looking ahead, we’re on pace to surpass four billion internet users this year, about 52 percent of the world’s population. The next four billion internet users will represent less-connected and less-prosperous regions of the world — and most of these people will be eager to see their languages represented on the internet. The Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly understand this. They understand that the internet connects computers, but it is language that connects people.

The fact is, you can’t communicate worldwide without speaking quite a few languages. There are only eight languages on this planet with more than 200 million native speakers. Most languages have 50 million or fewer speakers. The fewer the people who speak a language, the less likely a given CEO will be to support it, citing a lack of “return on investment.” Which is where CEOs could take a page from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where there appears to be no such thing as a “minority” language.

As for what the future holds for the internet, perhaps Wikipedia offers the most optimistic view. As the ultimate example of a crowdsourced and user-supported website, Wikipedia’s 298 languages indicates that people around the world want more content in their own languages — even if it means creating or translating that content themselves. And as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ investment in languages exhibits, the best way to reach out to the world and to connect with people in their comfort zone is through the languages they speak.

The larger question is this: will the language leaders of the future continue to be religions and crowdsourced nonprofits? Or will corporations catch up and finally show the speakers of the world’s languages the attention and respect they deserve?

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for most CEOs to get religious about languages, but one can always hope. To paraphrase William Gibson, the linguistic future of the internet is coming, but it will not be evenly distributed.