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Localization into Hindi? No, thank you!

By: Kajal Ambedkar (BITS Private Limited) - BITS Private Limited

06 June 2013

Kajal Ambedkar, Director of BITS Private Limited, discusses whether companies entering the Indian market have the misconception that they will get by in India by selling products and services only in English. 

Willy Brandt’s quotation, ‘If I am selling to you, I speak your language. But if I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen’ is used indiscriminately by translation companies across the globe to sell their services. On occasion, I too have been guilty of using this quotation to sell and it has always worked. Well, almost always…

A few months ago, I was presenting my company to a very important (potential) customer and as the grand finale of my sales pitch I used a slightly localized version of this quotation by replacing the German part of the sentence with Hindi.  I thought that would clinch the deal, but the potential customer coolly pointed out, ‘Yes, that’s all right, but we intend to sell our products in India, and everyone knows that India speaks English, so English should be enough’. For a moment, his comment threw me for a loop. I was baffled by his reasoning, but soon realized that he had said what he believed was true. And perhaps, it also reflected the thoughts of most companies entering India.

Until a few years ago, most of the western world believed in a stereotypical India where kings ruled, and snake charmers and elephants wandered on the streets. That perception changed thanks to the unprecedented growth of the IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in India. Cheap labor and people with English language and coding skills made India the premier outsourcing destination for western countries. Outsourcing to India became the new mantra. This created another stereotype where all Indians were computer programmers and conversed in English. The Indian industry added to this myth simply by not denying the fact that this was exactly that - a myth. After all, this perception of India was good for their business.

But India can never be a land of stereotypes; it is much too diverse to be that. In India there is a proverb that says, ‘As you travel, the water changes every two miles and the language changes every four miles’. It is a country that has 22 official languages at last count, with Hindi and English as the two main official languages. It is a country where anti-Hindi and anti-English rallies are held. It is a country that is as divided by languages as it is united. Still, Hindi is considered to be the national language of India and is taught mandatorily in schools across the country.

Now, let’s talk facts. Less than 30% of the Indian population speaks English and only about 60% understand English at the beginner’s level. Most of those that are part of the elite 30% live in urban India. On the other hand, more than 41% of Indians speak some form of Hindi as their first language and more than 75% of Indians speak and/or understand Hindi. Bollywood, as the Hindi film industry is generally known in India, has popularized Hindi to such an extent that even children from non-Hindi speaking families at least speak and understand Hindi.

Presently, India is a country of the middle class. The standard of living of an average Indian household has increased. Cable television and the internet have opened the door, eyes, and wallets to globalization, which means the buying power of the average Indian as well as his willingness to buy has increased. For a company entering this market, it translates into India being ripe for the picking.

So can a company looking to enter the Indian market get away without localizing their content into at least Hindi if not other major Indian languages?

Companies enter India with great hopes of penetrating the market with one billion potential buyers. But it is not a market that is easy to woo by any standard. It is a price- and value-sensitive market. Global giants have had to localize to succeed in India. Take, for instance, both a well-known global fast food chain and a global agricultural machinery manufacturer The fast food chain did not only localize their menu to exclude beef and pork and introduce a vegetarian and India-specific menu, but it also used the local language in its advertising campaigns. A global tractor manufacturer also has gone down to the grassroots level in order to succeed. They have localized all their documentation into several Indian languages and are slowly reaping the benefits. It is now strong competition for other well-known and well-loved indigenously manufactured tractors. And then, there are companies that have succeeded in India despite selling only in English and are happy with the market share that they have garnered in India.

But I must add here that there is a world of difference between the market penetration and reception of companies that localize and companies that don’t. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’.

As language services providers, I believe it is our duty to disabuse our customers of their preconceived notions, educate them, and lead them on the right path.

What is the right path? Does this mean a company looking to enter India must localize all their documentation into an Indian language? Or should they look at India through the haze of their preconceived notions and not localize? Neither! The answer lies somewhere in between. Localization is an informed decision that a company needs to take under the expert guidance of a local LSP. The best way to decide whether a company must localize their product or service is by asking a few simple questions:

  1. What is the target market of your product/service, and what is the acceptability of English in that market?
  2. What is the retail price of the product and is English a language used by those who might afford that price?
  3. Will the use of English give the potential buyer a feeling of belonging to a different social class or will it intimidate him?

The answers to these questions will help you find an answer for your customer’s localization conundrum. For instance, if the product is a luxury car costing several million rupees, you can choose to not localize the documentation, but if it were to be a motor scooter costing a few thousand rupees, then all documentation should ideally be localized not only into Hindi, but also other regional languages. Of course it is not as easy as it sounds, but that is exactly where a trusted local partner would be useful.

Yes, India is a drool-worthy, one billion strong market where the fun is in the numbers. But is your customer’s product or service actually reaching the one billion people of India or only a meager 30%? The only way forward for companies to capture a greater share of the great Indian pie is to go local.

Kajal Ambedkar is the Director of BITS Private Limited. She has spent nine years in the industry in a variety of roles. She is currently responsible for the sales and marketing of the company and helping foreign companies enter the Indian market.