The Connective Multilingual Internet

When the virus closed borders, languages crossed them

John Yunker is author of Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy. He is co-founder of Byte Level Research and author of the annual Web Globalization Report Card.


If the past year has taught us anything, it is how connected the world is, for better and for worse. In only a few short months, a virus encircled the planet, shutting down nearly every border along the way.

The internet proved a lifeline for millions of individuals and businesses, crossing borders and pushing ecommerce to levels never before seen. It’s not only Amazon that benefited; Shopify merchants processed nearly $120 billion in 2020, an increase of 96% from the year before. The pandemic has proven how critical websites (and mobile apps) are in keeping the world connected. But there is one barrier to global business that still remains — the language barrier.

Which is why, despite a pandemic during which most businesses have done more cost-cutting than spending, the leading global brands — companies such as Apple, Delta Airlines, Microsoft, and John Deere — have maintained their investments in multilingual websites. Additionally, some companies, such as FedEx, Ford, and Tesla, have expanded their linguistic reach over the past year, adding languages such as Arabic, Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese, to name just a few.

According to the 2021 annual study from Byte Level Research, global brands support an average of 33 languages, which remains unchanged from a year before. When one considers the economic challenges of the past year, the fact that so many companies did not step back from the global stage is a sign that we will emerge from the pandemic just as interconnected (virtually at least) as we entered.

If one takes a longer view, it becomes clear that website globalization is one of the most significant and inexorable trends over the past two decades, and that companies as well as consumers can expect to see language growth across the web.

Consider Starbucks. In 2003, this aspiring global company supported a mere three languages. Today, it supports 29 languages and most recently added localized websites for Italy and Sweden.

The average number of languages per top website, from 2005 to 2020. Source: Byte Level Research, 2021 Web Globalization Report Card.

Last year, Netflix added Malaysian, Russian, and Greek, and has more than doubled its global footprint since 2019. Amazon added a localized website for Sweden last year — though it quickly drew ridicule for the poor quality of translation. Tesla added four languages, increasing its total to 24.

This degree of language growth crosses industries. Over the past year, Ely Lilly, LEGO, and Rolex have all expanded their linguistic footprints. Ford supports 45 languages, Philips supports 43, and even Jack Daniel’s is fluent in 21 languages.

One of the world’s most linguistic companies is not a company at all but a nonprofit: Wikipedia. Wikipedia sup-ports more than 300 languages and proves that the nearly five billion internet users not only speak many languages but wish to see their languages well supported.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have traveled, and humans have traded. We purchase products from all corners of the globe. We covet French Champagne, German sedans, and Mexican tequila.

And as we emerge from the pandemic, those countries and companies that continue to embrace the world and invest in translation will be best poised to succeed. Our bodies may be susceptible to any number of viruses, but we will always be immune to languages we do not speak.