It's easy for U.S. executives to think that English is the global language. Of the world's 6 billion people, 2 billion speak at least pidgin English, more than double the number two decades ago. Americans traveling abroad find English speakers at almost every airport, hotel and restaurant, and foreign executives are often impressively fluent. Even the French, after decades of trying to muzzle phrases like le weekend, seem weary of the fight. In a poll conducted by the European Commission, 66% of French respondents said oui when asked if all continentals should speak what's dubbed la langue du Coca-Cola.
That's great for monolingual Americans. But chatting with headwaiters is one thing; selling overseas is another. With the global economy slumping, firms are looking for cost-effective ways to grow revenue anywhere they can. To reach customers in far-flung parts of the world, they've increasingly outsourced the translation of everything from computer-software programs to stock reports. Translation-services firms, as a result, are booming even as most U.S. service industries contract.
Some of the largest companies in the field--Bowne Global Solutions, Lionbridge Technologies and Berlitz GlobalNET (a sister company of the language school)--say they expect a surge in U.S. government contracts involving Arabic, Dari, Pashtu, Uzbek and other languages useful in the war against terrorism. But that's a small part of the business. More broadly, the industry is thriving because American companies are learning--after years of denial--that to profit in the global economy, it's critical to speak the customer's native tongue. "An American company expanding abroad is competing with merchants who speak the local language," says Donald Plumley, chief marketing officer of Bowne Global Solutions, based in Parsippany, N.J. "You may have a better product, but if your customers don't understand your product, you lose. You have to speak their language."
Native English speakers are, in fact, fast becoming a minority in the marketplace. In the U.S. alone, 18% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 Census. In California, the world's sixth largest economy, the figure is nearly 40%. And on the Internet, it's a Tower of Babel. Only 48% of the world's Web users are native English speakers, down from 77% in 1997. By the end of 2003, the figure will drop to 32%, according to the Aberdeen Group, a tech-research company in Boston.
Consumers are four times as likely to buy a product online if the website is in their preferred language, according to IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass. Some of the big dotcoms--Amazon, eBay and Yahoo--figured out this trend earlier than most, and report fast-growing revenues from overseas divisions, which generate indigenous content. But most U.S. firms have not yet done a great job of marketing to non-English speakers online. Last year just 37 of the large companies in the FORTUNE 100 operated non-English sites, according to Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass.