Last updated:  
Apr 10, 2018 @ 7:25 PM

Your business is growing nicely—and that’s great. It’s a local service or product business and international expansion is not really possible. So language or culture, spoken or written, is not really a barrier for you. Well I’m sorry to disturb the peace but do you know how many people in your area speak a language different from your own? And I don’t mean a casual language practice for homework help. It might be time to think about local business localization.

In our cheerfully diverse home of Vancouver, the picture is complex; in Canada you might expect to need French, but what about immigrant populations?  The 2011 census (CBC News) reported 712,000 people speaking an immigrant language most often at home and 369,350 people who only speak something other than French or English at home.  So that’s 31% speaking mostly a foreign language, and 16% who communicate exclusively in a foreign language at home in Vancouver, Canada.

So what does this data mean for local business localization?

To hedge my bet, I’ll go with the smallest data group. Let’s say that the 15% who speak English and another language at home are perfectly fine with just speaking English. They may be second generation and without any real preference, or just people who have been exposed to both languages for so long that it doesn’t really matter. That leaves us with 16% who only speak a language other than English and French at home. To make a simple comparison, if you were to localize into Korean in order to expand your N.American business to Korea, you would be targeting a 14% increase in your potential reach (comparing the populations) which is pretty close to the same percentage.

I’m not convinced. They live in an English speaking country and I’d expect them to speak an official language.

That may be a valid point. But only if you are the government. You could say that if someone wants your service, he or she needs to communicate with you in one of the official languages, and you could get away with that, as a public official.

For a private business, however, the picture is different. If you are a counseling company with Chinese staff on board, how will I find you if you don’t have a Chinese website? If your branch doesn’t employ Punjabi speaking staff, I’ll go to another bank that can address me in a language I feel comfortable with. Remember, it’s not about communicating a few words, it’s about feeling at ease. Being able to express one’s self fully is a big part of that. If I don’t feel comfortable in English, I won’t be able to express my needs properly. If I can’t express my needs properly, you won’t be able to fulfill them even if you have the ability.

So I should go ahead and translate my website to Punjabi, Chinese, and everything else?

No, actually.  Don’t just jump in without thinking. This is not about translation, it is about fulfilling a need. Start by looking at your staff. If 31% of the people in Vancouver speak more than English and French, it’s likely you have a few bilingual staff members in your Vancouver office. See how you can utilize their language skills in your day to day activities. See a light? Now examine the potential market. Can you sharpen your skills to target this audience? Then start forming a plan. How can I make my business more visible to these people? Should I translate my website? Should I get a booth at the Chinese festival? Sponsor an Immigration Society Services program? Hold an info night in Tagalog?

Remember, if you’re a local business in Vancouver and address your audience in English only, you’re missing at least 14% of your potential business.  In almost any market, a little bit of investment in your multilingual strategy can take you a long way.

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