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There’s a common belief that for many subject areas — academia and science, technology, financial services, and digital content come to mind – English language content is sufficient for most international customers.

But that’s a risky assumption. Here’s why.

A global study of more than 3,000 consumers in 10 countries by Common Sense Advisory asked respondents to rate their English language reading skills when buying products or services online. The result: 48% claimed to have a “good or better” understanding of English, despite missing some details.

This seems to make the opposite case – that almost half of international consumers could be served satisfactorily in English. But look closer.

The study didn’t test for English proficiency, it merely asked about consumers’ confidence levels. German citizens, who arguably have the best English language skills among the non-English countries, only rated themselves at the 48% confidence level. Some respondents from other countries who claimed higher confidence may, in fact, have less proficiency.

“… but for the other 79% of total respondents, as confidence [in English language proficiency] drops, so does engagement with English language content.”

For the 21% of respondents who were “confident” about their English language skills, they were more comfortable visiting English language sites:

• 77% visited at least daily;

• 23% visited only occasionally or rarely. But for the other 79% of total respondents, as confidence drops, so does engagement with English language content.

For respondents who rated their proficiency as “good”:

• Only 40% visit English language sites at least daily;

• 59% visit occasionally or rarely.

For respondents who assess their English skills as only “partial”:

• Only 19% visit English language sites at least daily;

• 75% visit only occasionally or rarely. Finally, for respondents who categorize their English language comprehension as “insufficient”:

• Only 7% visit English language sites at least daily;

• 72% visit rarely or never.

Visitors Spend More Time with Their Native Language

Across the 10 countries surveyed, 56% of respondents spent more time on sites in their native language or they don’t visit English language sites at all. Some 24% spent the same amount of time regardless of language.

Common Sense Advisory maintains that lack of English proficiency is a worldwide phenomenon. And as the data from their “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” study shows, if consumers are not fully confident in their English language comprehension, an English-only web strategy is an insufficient way to engage them.

You knew we’d say that, right? But now you know why.

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Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: How Translation Affects the Web Customer Experience and E-Commerce Growth was written by Donald A. DePalma, Vijayalaxmi Hegde, and Robert G. Stewart, February 2014, published by Common Sense Advisory.

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