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It would be easy to mistake English as the online lingua franca in India, but that’s far from reality. The country is home to a strikingly high number of native languages; India’s 2001 census reported more than 1,600 dialects spoken in the country, with 22 official languages recognized by the government.
While English was once the most widely used language among internet users, that’s no longer the case, according to data from KPMG in India and Google. The companies found that Indian-language internet users numbered 234 million in 2016, far more than the 175 million English-language internet users.
In addition, the firms predict that the number of Indian-language internet users will grow to 536 million by 2021, far outpacing the growth rate foreseen for English-language internet users.
That shift has been driven by several factors, according to the firms. Smartphones are increasingly being adopted by consumers outside of urban areas—a group less likely to speak either English or Hindi.
The government is also hastening the process with plans to invest more than $350 million in increasing digital literacy in rural areas. In addition, the drop in the cost of mobile date plans has made data-intensive behaviors like watching online videos easier than ever for consumers.
Certain online sectors will see more Indian-language users than others. KPMG in India and Google expect that chat apps, digital entertainment and social media will each have least 300 million Indian-language users by 2021. Meanwhile, Indian-language internet users engaged in ecommerce will number 165 million by 2021, up from just 42 million in 2016.
This ongoing shift has dramatic implications for tech companies that use the internet to provide goods and services. These firms will need to continually invest in making their services available in a range of local languages, often referred to collectively as “vernacular” in India. The need for more localized materials also extends to brands looking to advertise in India.
Gulshan Verma, chief revenue officer for Times Internet, the digital arm of the media company Times of India Group, thinks the push toward content in local languages is still in its early stages. “We’re talking with some brands about creating not only English-language content models, but also [content in] local languages like Hindi,” he said. “I would argue that most people are not making enough content in local languages.”
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