Vive la différence: Specializing in non-English languages

Despite the prophecies and long-range economic forecasting models suggesting the world of business should be carefully charting the skies of the east for direction in innovation and trade, English still remains the language of business, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Statista estimates that of the 1.5-1.7 billion English speakers around the world, only 375 million of those can claim it as their native language. However, it’s not the fact that English is the third most popular spoken language in the world that gives it a business advantage, it’s the fact that it is estimated to be everyone’s preferred or default secondary learned language.

That dual omnipotence makes English language skills accessible, sellable and coveted. This offers translators, linguists and interpreters a tantalizing career path to follow, yet the English language market is competitive and congested, and forging a career specializing in several other Western European languages may be just as rewarding.

As those in the translation industry know only too well, there’s a blurred relationship between the number of specific language speakers around the world and the most popular language pairs translated by language service providers (LSPs). This is partly because a huge amount of work undertaken for clients by LSPs centers on web projects.

Approximately 55% of the top ten million websites use the English language to deliver their content, according to a 2015 report by The Broadband Commission For Digital Development (a joint venture between the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO).

Clearly, 55% of the world’s population doesn’t speak English as their first language, and with such a heavy imbalance, it’s little wonder that English is the most popular language for aspiring translators to learn.

The same report calculates that just 5% of the world’s estimated 71,000 languages are accessible on the internet and, if 1.2 billion people speak Chinese as a first language, why is Chinese only the main content language of 2.2% of websites? Language remains a barrier to business, a cultural chasm and a disjointed obstacle of communication.

English as the voice of commerce will always be top dog, even in Europe. There are 24 official languages in the European Union (EU), and various studies suggest that approximately 40% of Europeans speak English as a foreign language. Once again, it’s English’s strength as a secondary language that helps boost its popularity.

It’s therefore surprising that a new study by Natixis, a French investment bank, suggests that French will be the world’s most commonly spoken language by the year 2050, and will be spoken by 750 million people in 30 years — a significant increase from the current 220 million estimate.

There are many captivating reasons why new and established language experts might like to embrace French professionally. It is an “official” language of Western Europe, after all. Despite pressure to impose English as the governing first language among the corridors of Brussels from various quarters, it is the language of the EU and many other influential institutions around the continent, including major oil, gas and financial services companies.

French also travels well. As of 2015, there were 29 independent nations where French is the official language, spread across North and South America, Europe and Africa. It is the mother tongue for more than seven million Canadians (approximately 22% of the total population) and unofficial figures suggest one of the most populous French-speaking cities in Western Europe is London, with between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens calling the English capital home.

French continues to have a substantial influence in West and Central Africa, a region that many business leaders (and indeed LSPs) are eyeing as the next possible boom economy.

African French is the rather generic term for the variants of French spoken by around 120 million African people. The Economist Corporate Network estimates that the 2015 gross domestic product for Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow at 4.5% — making it the fastest growing economic region in the world.

Three of the top six fastest growing economies in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and Rwanda, have French as their official language, and many other neighboring countries including Algeria, Senegal and Nigeria have tight bilateral and trade agreements with France — their currency unions are also closely linked to the Euro.

Since 2014, the French Government, headed by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, the Senate and the National Assembly, has helped nurture a multimillion dollar French dual-language program in New York schools.

These schools offer a French and English curriculum mix for approximately 1,000 students, making it the city’s third-largest dual-language program (after Chinese and Spanish), and the demand continues to grow.

Despite the plethora of employment opportunities it presents, many believe French still carries with it an air of academic elitism and cultural intellectualism. Yet it isn’t the only alternative to English for Western European language specialists.

Germany is the most populous European nation, with around 82 million inhabitants. German is the official language of Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

German is only ranked tenth globally in terms of native speakers, of which there are around 104 million, but is ranked fourth in terms of non-native speakers who have learned it as a second language.

This contradiction is no doubt based on Germany’s economic prowess. Europe’s powerhouse is the third largest exporter in the world. In 2014, it recorded the highest trade surplus in the world, worth $285 billion.

While French is the better traveled language, Germany’s inhabitants are among the best traveled, spending more on travel per capita than any other nation, according to the World Tourism Organization.

The desire to learn German is an attractive one — 14.5 million people worldwide are learning German as a foreign language, according to the latest estimates from the Goethe Institute. It is taught in schools in more than 140 countries, and there is significant growth in German language academic qualifications in emerging markets in recent years, such as Brazil, China and India.

The Com Laude & Valideus Gazetteer of Top Level Domains for Autumn 2015 places .de in third place, and the country has more than 56 million internet users. Germany is also home to several Fortune 500 companies and is known for its support of small and medium enterprises so German, like French, offers a real window of opportunity for the ambitious translation professional.

With so many unofficial and unregistered language schools operating around the world, albeit at various levels of professionalism and quality, it is impossible to gauge the true numbers, but what the above does indicate is that Western European language skills and qualifications are viewed as valuable commodities for both students and businesses around the world.

Many language experts see French and German as “punching above their weight” in terms of global technology usage. French (4%) and German (3%) both feature in the top ten most popular languages among mobile app users, and both make the top ten most popular languages used by website users.

Western Europe continues to be a hotbed of innovation and concentration in the LSP industry, is home to almost 20% of the world’s top LSPs and boasts a global market share of approximately 25%, according to research by Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research).

Western Europe can also claim the most currently-spoken Romance language, the second most widely used language on the planet and the third most commonly used language on the internet — Spanish, of course.

Spanish is the most-studied second language in the United States and as a rough estimate, is spoken by 480 million people across Europe, North and South America.

When analyzing the big numbers, French, German and Spanish offer a powerful and common sense alternative to the language preference for English.

Population shifts

On a human level, Western Europe is also seen as a land of hope and possibility. One only has to look at the important role translators and interpreters are currently playing in Germany, France and wider Europe — providing a valuable language service as the global refugee crisis continues to escalate.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that Germany will lose five million people by 2050, despite 500,000 stateless citizens heading there in 2015. Germany has a low birth rate at present and an aging population. These gaps in the labor force point to a need for young workers and, as the country becomes more ethnically diverse, so too a need for workers in the language industry.

Has there ever been a better time for translators? Not surprisingly, French and German both feature in the majority of top ten lists for the most commonly translated languages (both source and target) and across all subject areas.

A CSA Research report paints an attractive portrait for the immediate future: “The 2015 market for outsourced language services and supporting technology is US $38.16 billion. This shows a growth rate of 6.46%, which is impressive given pressures on the market such as foreign exchange rate fluctuations and European economic challenges. We project that the market will grow to around $47 billion by 2018.”

Bulletproof and a real recession-buster perhaps, but what about the digital elephant in the room? LSPs can either stress about YouTube’s new multilanguage titles and descriptions tool, or the Google Translate app, or press on with offering a professional service that leaves individual customers and corporate giants alike no choice but to employ a professional translation company at all times.

Human translators are central to the success of any LSP. Despite being such a technologically-capable industry, the most successful LSPs look for old school values in their translators: accurate, hardworking and methodical, and well qualified. LSPs cannot exist without expert translators and vice versa.

An LSP’s remit is simple enough: to provide technological and language excellence in all its language-related products and services, but it can only do this with translator assistance. The most progressive LSPs are looking at how best to maximize the skills of the translator by merging technological innovation while leveraging translator efficiency and expertise.

CareerBuilder, a US-based recruitment company, predicts that the translation and interpretation services sector will be the single fastest-growing sector in the United States over the next four years.

According to its 2015 report, which collected data from 90 US government sources, the industry is expected to add about 12,400 jobs between 2014 and 2019. That’s a 36% increase. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics goes further, predicting a 46% rise in translation job opportunities between 2012 and 2022.

Natixis’ prediction may be correct or it may not be, and French may or may not rise to become the world’s most commonly spoken language by the year 2050, but that doesn’t really matter in this instance — either way, translation is on the rise.

Be it French or Farsi, German or Georgian, rather than fulfilling the European Union’s dream of one voice, one people, one nation, Europe and more specifically Western European society is becoming ever more multilayered and multicultural. In public and in private, this pattern of growth will inevitably increase the demand for passionate, talented and well-qualified language specialists to harmonize these many voices.