December 2019
Text by Terena Bell

Image: © Bartosz Hadyniak/

Terena Bell manages public relations for Lionbridge, a marketing, testing, and globalization provider offering services in 350+ languages. In the past, she has worked as a reporter covering translation, and served as Secretary of the Globalization and Localization Association board.


Five factors to consider when localizing for India

From generational differences to regional pride, translating for India takes more than just words. Here are some tips to help you tap into one of the world’s greatest markets.

By 2025, India will be the world’s third-largest consumer market, with the largest middle class on the planet. By 2030, consumer spending should quadruple, thanks to a projected one billion residents who will then be online. If you want these people to buy from you, you have to translate your content.

Erroneously thought of as an "English-first" market, the country’s current 1.37 billion residents speak 122 distinct languages with 1,599 dialects written in 13 different scripts. Only ten percent of the population speaks English.



Figure 1: According to India’s constitution, the country itself doesn’t have a "national" language. Instead, there are 22 official tongues, which the Indian government calls "scheduled" languages.


So where do you start? How can translation buyers even dream of approaching such a linguistically diverse target market? Here are five key factors your company needs to consider in order for your localization efforts to succeed:


1. English-first is a myth

English-language dominance in India is a misconception, period. But because this myth has historically been so prevalent, it’s easy for global marketers to assume they can get by with English-only campaigns. Truth is that the ten percent who do speak English fluently speak it as a second language. Translation isn’t something they and other Indian consumers want; it’s something they demand, with 90 percent of Indian shoppers saying they expect full product and marketing localization. Seventy percent even consider local language content more reliable than information in English.


2. In India, linguistic diversity is a social and emotional reality

The large number of languages spoken in India is impressive. But statistics can’t even begin to convey the powerful emotional forces that propel the country’s linguistic diversity: The geographic boundaries of India’s 29 different states were established along linguistic lines. People in the State of Bengal, for example, typically speak Bengali. Assam residents speak Assamese. In Kashmir, Kashmiri is the language of the land. But that’s not to say these are the only languages spoken there. No matter where they live, Indians tend to be multilingual.

This geographically driven linguistic divide also reflects ethnic, historical, and religious differences – belief sets and values that stretch further back in time than the histories of many Western nations. Even when individuals speak more than one local language, they may prefer to read or speak exclusively in their native tongue – not just out of obvious linguistic preference, but for cultural reasons linked to regional and cultural pride. When companies or people try to impose their language, this not only causes offense but can also wound deeply inherent pride.

Hindi, in particular, is problematic. It’s India’s most commonly spoken language – and its use is a hot topic of emotional national debate. Hindi is also one of the country’s official languages, but certain parts of the country refuse to recognize it as a "national" one, making its perceived penetration into non-native speakers’ daily lives a source of continuing controversy.

It’s no surprise, then, with such emotionally powerful elements at work, that consumer linguistic preferences play such a huge part in their buying decisions. Global businesses can navigate this complex linguistic landscape by localizing products, services, and content into the language that’s best linked regionally and culturally to their ideal target market. Choosing the right language also helps companies maximize market penetration across a broader, vibrantly growing Indian landscape.

The right translation services provider can help you determine the best languages, using demographics and insights like these to guide you:


  • Hindi is currently the fourth most-spoken language in the world. Bengali is seventh and Punjabi is tenth.
  • By 2021, a total 201 million Hindi speakers are expected to be online, far outnumbering India’s English speakers.
  • That same year, 30 percent of Internet users are projected to speak either Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, or Telugu natively.
  • By 2050, Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu won’t just be prevalent across India – all three languages will be among the top five spoken worldwide.


3. The smartphone is king

Right now, India is the world’s second largest smartphone market. Unlike Western consumers, who often buy technology to keep up with the Joneses, Lionbridge Country Head for India Sarath Divella says Indian consumers tend to buy for functionality: "They’re not status-conscious customers who are trying to show off or display their watch, phone, or any other items. They’re people who need the function of the product and then use it." As a result, the products and apps they buy on their phones have to meet an actual need. 4G smartphones currently sell for as little as 60 euros and – in comparison – data isn’t that expensive either: approximately 0.23 USD per GB per month vs. 12.37 USD in the United States. Accordingly, mobile adoption is exploding, with India boasting the highest data usage per phone in the world.

This new mobile reach extends into India’s rural areas – a previously untapped market far less likely to speak English than urban consumers. Coupled with the Internet’s e-commerce and demand generation abilities, hundreds of millions of formerly out-of-reach Indians can now become eager users of your product content. Mobile e-commerce and e-transactions are growing at an accelerating pace, transacted over platforms like the shopping apps Flipkart and Snapdeal, Amazon, and e-wallet app paytm. As commerce transitions from cash to cashless, Indians are also increasingly using these e-wallets to purchase.

By 2021, 536 million Indians are expected to use local languages online, completely eradicating that older myth of India as an English-first market. Capitalizing on this tech revolution means embracing localization.


4. It’s not just tech – the actual consumer is changing

India’s urban and rural areas have started to converge, sharing not just technological access but brand affinities, standards of living (on some level) as well as technology-driven purchasing patterns. And this isn’t the only change affecting Indian society and how people buy.

For starters, the country’s middle class is growing stronger. Roughly 50 percent of Indian households currently fall into this economic bracket and 80 percent are expected to be middle class by 2030. The middle class drives 75 percent of all of India’s consumer spending. Note, however, that just as there are differences in what "middle class" means in the United Kingdom vs. in the United States, India has its own definition: The term is fairly broad, covering everyone from street vendors whose big-ticket purchases are phones and televisions to upper middle-class technocrats buying cars and luxury items.

New generations are seizing buying power as well. Notably, Millennials (people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s) and Generation Z (between 1995 and 2010) are now shaping national consumer tastes. Nearly half of the world’s total Millennial population lives in either India (440 million people) or China (415 million). By 2030, a staggering 77 percent of Indians will be either Millennials or Gen Z.

Beyond sheer population numbers, these generations’ tech-savviness creates markets. As a group, they rabidly use the Internet and social media. Millennial reliance has made these channels key sources for insight on consumer spending. Millennials are knowledgeable buyers with the ability to quickly decide what they want and drill down through features to determine what a product truly offers.

Of course, middle-class Indians and Millennials are not mutually exclusive. But both groups do share at least one pivotal trait: Whereas age and income have traditionally driven consumption choice, now India’s largest deciding factor is whether a buyer has digital or online access through a phone. "When you look at many Indians in the 25-35 age range," Sarath Divella continues, "they consume virtually all of their content and conduct transactions via their mobile phone. They’ve skipped over the whole idea of owning a physical desktop or laptop computer. They don’t fit the stereotype of people who own lots of devices. They often have one device and one only: their mobile phone."

The more connected the consumer, the more likely they are to make educated purchases, to upgrade to premium, and to become loyal to a brand. As a 2014 study from localization research firm Common Sense Advisory indicates, they’ll turn to competitors if they can’t count on your company to provide product and service information in their native language: Fifty-five percent of global shoppers say language determines whether they do business with any given business.


5. There’s a big difference between what freelancers and a translation company provide

From a translation standpoint, the Indic languages themselves present such a diverse market that, in the past, buyers have sometimes relied on freelancers as opposed to partnering with professional localization companies. These freelancers typically worked ad hoc: moonlighting professors, foreign students, bilingual employees. The downside of working with people who understand the language but don’t know how to translate was overly formal, stilted translations that failed to capture the company’s true marketing message. For B2C products, which rely on vibrant or catchy advertising to sell, the product’s essence was lost. Not to mention managing freelancers is cumbersome, a logistics and quality-control nightmare when 22 scheduled languages are involved.

In moving from freelancers to a language service provider, companies gain back the time they lost managing resources, and ensure translations are overseen by a project manager charged with maintaining tone. The right localization partner will offer Indic languages as a specialization, not as an add-on just to augment German, French, or other European translations. A great partner will also provide insights like the current article, thus bringing nuance to your Indian content supply chain.

Here are some key traits to look for in a language service provider:


  • Proven experience in global, multilingual marketing campaigns, specifically including both national and regional Indian markets.
  • A full range of localization services, from translation and transcreation to copywriting and vocalization. Whether you need a voice app translated into Hindi or a website localized into Malayalam, choosing one single provider will save you from having to remake this decision every time you have a new need.
  • Translation technology that allows you to choose between machine translation and human translation as needed. Engines should be well-trained in the target language, which isn’t an easy feat. Not even Google Translate, for example, offers translation into all of India’s languages.
  • Technology integration that streamlines translation and localization with the tech platforms you already use.
  • Access to continuous coaching from a partner who serves not as a vendor, but as an expert confidant and long-term localization advisor, answering any questions your company has about the Indian market.
  • Sheer market know-how: As you go from state to state and language to language, India’s customs, idioms, and culture change. You need a linguistic partner who not only can translate accurately, but who can also keep you and your content up to date with unique meanings and regionally specific cultural references.


Tap in now

As daunting as all of this sounds, remember the world’s largest and most innovative companies may be doing business in India, but they aren’t the only ones. Businesses of all sizes are exporting into the country in order to tap into its booming market potential early. There may be 22 official languages in India, but there’s one globalization strategy that’s perfectly right for you. And with the right localization strategy and assistance, a world of possibilities is waiting.