English-only approach for India? Think again.

welocalize April 1, 2019

Consider this: There is data about a country that shows it has moderate proficiency in English. Add to this the fact that the country has several indigenous languages that are spoken by millions of people. With robust economic growth making it an attractive target market, would global brands spare a thought about driving local content strategies for that country? The answer is probably not.

India finds itself at the center of a unique discussion in the localization world. Despite being well below the likes of Finland, Portugal, and Malaysia in English proficiency, companies are still sometimes unsure whether to roll out a multilingual marketing strategy for India. Localization is routinely considered a must when entering the Finnish, Portuguese, and Malay markets despite their higher proficiency in English.

Various studies put the number of English-speaking Indians at 10% to 20% of the population. That’s not a high percentage but in terms of sheer numbers, that’s still huge: even at just 10% of the population, that’s upwards of 125 million people — about one-third of the population of the United States. It’s clear why most companies are taken in by “English-speaking India”.

Market coverage: Do you reach a few consumers or go all out?

If global brands plan to address just this 10% of the India market, should the English language be enough? No – this approach will never be 100% efficient as even this fraction does not speak English as its first language (it’s often the third). Plus, the emotional, social, and cultural connect is going to be very different.

However, companies with global growth strategies targeted at India aren’t going to want to target only a fraction of the population. All the effort and investment involved in logistics, legal compliances, and culturally adapting content and user experience means companies want to reach a significant portion of the Indian market. The only option left is to offer product and services in Indian languages. Of course, the range and number of Indian languages can seem intimidating at first but take heart. Over 50% of the population can be reached with the top dozen languages or less.

Speakers of Indian languages are rapidly increasing their presence online, says a KPMG study. With over 450 million internet users, India is the second-largest online market behind China.

Indian Language Internet Users by Category (million)

Source: KPMG #IndiaTrends2018

Localizing for India is not just about market coverage, although that’s a critical reason. Brand awareness and brand recall are strongly associated with marketing and after-sales service in native languages. Nokia localized for India in the late 1990s, barely a few years after it started operations in the country. Of course, it localized its product to huge success – who can forget the dust-resistant, anti-slip, and torch features?  The result was brand awareness that lasted years, even after the company quit the market and Nokia can still leverage that brand awareness when re-entering old markets.

Indian Clinical Trials

A good example where an English-only approach doesn’t work well is the field of pharmacology and clinical trials. Welocalize works with many pharmaceutical enterprises and CROs who operate in the Indian market, from biotech patent filing and translation to managing the clinical trial process, starting with patient recruitment. While English is the main language of medical communication throughout India, the independent Ethics Committees require that informed consent forms and all other documents for subject review, such as study diary and questionnaires, be translated into local languages.

Many people assume that since English is the primary language of medical training, then English is fine as the official language for any clinical trial taking place. This could lead to confusion as many local patients may not understand English, therefore, would not be able to fully understand all the information presented to them in an English language consent form.

Cultural traits must also be taken into consideration in this field. Certain topics may be seen as socially inappropriate. A patient may be unlikely to answer questions if asked by a member of the opposite sex.

Beware a Hindi-Only Approach

Another myth about the Indian market —the first one being the wide prevalence of English — is that Hindi is the only Indian language that content should be presented in. While it’s true that Hindi is spoken by about half the Indian population, cultural and linguistic preferences of people in other parts of the country are very strongly for their own languages. Especially so in the money-spinning states in the South and West.

Consumers in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra are extremely savvy and lead in online presence. They hail from states that drive the growth engine of India. They are also affirming their linguistic identity online and their consumer forums have begun to be quite vocal in their demand to be served in their own language.


 As with any other developing economy, India presents its own set of challenges in product and content localization. But one of the first decisions taken before launching in this country must be the decision to localize – never mind seeming English (or Hindu) proficiency of Indians: speak to them in their languages.

 To learn more about going global and entering new markets, connect with Welocalize at marketing@welocalize.com