Language barrier is an innovation barrier

This is a though I just came up with. I haven’t given it much thinking, but I would like to share it with you anyway, just to make you think again.

Website popularity usually goes one way: from the English world to the non-English world. Non-English websites can become very popular within their own cultural boundaries, but rarely get a lot of traction outside their cultural boundaries. English, and especially American, websites start in English-only mode. Then they get popular in the reasonably large English-speaking community. Next they get something magical or special for the non-English part of the world, partially because they are promoted in English popular media, which the rest of world follows very closely as well.

This gives them a huge edge. Example: a very popular Dutch social media network is Hyves. It is very popular under secondary school students, because it provides an easy interface to do what they want to do: share pictures, status updates and leave messages at each others walls. It is not run by a creepy guy who sells your personal details to the advertisers, although it was recently bought by the Dutch ‘Sun’.

The English Wikipedia on Hyves: “In May of 2010 Hyves had more than 10.3 million accounts (corresponding to two thirds of the size of the entire Dutch population which stands at over 16 million in 2010), with growth of over two million members compared to the previous 1.5 years.” It is the most popular social network in the Netherlands and it obviously does something right. It also offers an English version of its website, but that never became very popular.

Lets look at Facebook. Founded in 2004, but opened to the wider public only in 2006, a year when the Dutch police already started to use Hyves to locate suspects. It would be still a while until Facebook would get so popular that stories about suspects sharing their location on Facebook would emerge, but Hyves already had them. Facebook grew to half a billion users very quickly, many more than Hyves’ 10.3 million people. However, now more and more Dutch people are moving to Facebook, and I do hear that many people find its interface confusing and don’t know where to find things, considering it a more limited platform. (Although FarmVille makes up for that for some people.)

Why did Hyves, which seems to be favourite still amongst secondary school students, and also, though less, amongst adults, never gain enough traction in the English world to become popular? You, reader, probably never heard of this network before. I believe that this is caused by the language barrier, by the fact that the international culture, the one world that globalisation is said to have brought us, is mostly a one-way culture.

We consume the American culture, our own culture is heavily influenced by it, but because no American really follows Dutch culture, Hyves could have never gained enough fame abroad. Many Dutchmen and women gladly joined Facebook, despite its lack of localisation, but that would simply be not possible for the people that do not belong to the 27 million people that speak Dutch to use it. I read English-language news blogs about English-language social networks, but I do not read Swedish news blogs about Swedish social networks either.

This does not apply just to one social network, you can see it in many places. Companies like TomTom are the exception, not the rule. It takes a lot of effort and translating to market a non-English project or product in the English-speaking world, but it takes no effort at all to market an English project in the non-English world. Why? Because apparently we want to be like you, and you too.

EDIT Referring back to the title of this post: because of this barrier, innovation also flows one way. It can float from the non-English world to the English world, but much, much harder than the other way around. This causes innovative initiatives outside the English culture to stagnate and limits the pool of potential the world can tap from.

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  1. I was going to suggest TomTom as counterexample indeed. Even though it's one of the few Dutch companies to really be successful, there are a lot more European companies who can become quite successful, and I really don't think Europe is a bad place to stat a company.

    And really, there's no way you can seriously say Hyves' interface is less confusing than Facebook's. People can only use Hyves because they're used to it, but it's a UX nightmare. Facebook is objectively done much better in that regard. The main reason Hyves is successfull in the Netherlands is because it was one of the first, and the main reason Facebook's becoming popular now, is vendor lock-in: when you start to know people from abroad, they'll have Facebook, not Hyves.

  2. Hi,

    I'm not sure that this is only language barier. Dutch people know english very very good, hey! your master degree studies are AFAIK only in english – for all dutch people. So english is not a barier for dutch startups, isn't it? Translation is possible and easy for dutch peopel, foreign business connections are possible, etc. So i think that this issue is mostly about content – in this century people in Europe are following trends in USA not the other way around.

    regards from Poland

  3. Sense,

    For better or for worse, English is the most widely-spoken second language in the world. Chinese is the most widely-spoken language, by the way. Not since the centuries of Latin dominance has there been such a common language for worldwide communication. These are just the facts.

    The English language in general, and American culture specifically appear to be extremely popular with the world overall. The key word here is "popular." Once something is popular, the masses will gravitate towards it. So, as a by-product, the flow of innovation may focus and cater to that flow. Therefore, as in business, the largest market gets the most attention. This opinion is obviously debatable.

    I have the sincerest respect for Dutch culture, language, and people. Many of the products chosen for my home were manufactured by Philips. My favorite musical artists are from the Netherlands. I read every day. So, at least one American follows Dutch culture. A blanket statement saying that Americans are uninterested in anything outside the US is somewhat erroneous. I can understand how some non-Americans may have viewpoint, and can agree with it to a small extent.

    Note: I am citizen of the United States and a native American English speaker.

  4. Thank you for an insightful article. Indeed, as a German, I had never heard of this Hyves before.

    I don't think this cultural barrier is such a big problem for innovation in a broader sense, though. Entering a different market is always a lot of work, and good products sell regardless. In a way, entering the US market is actually easier for foreign companies than the other way around, because US-specific cultural issues tend to be more widely known.

    However, things reverse when it comes to developments (not necessarily innovations) where network effects play a large role. Social networks are an obvious example of that, but certainly not the only ones. In those cases, the type of cultural one-way street you explain is certainly there.

    What it boils down to, I think, is that we need regulation to lessen the impact of network effects in general. When it comes to social networks, Facebook users must be able to "friend" users of other social networks, and vice versa. That is the only way to break the network effects that prevent the development of a free market.

  5. Sense,

    I agree with your statement of the average American being somewhat uninterested in anything happening outside the United States. The most likely reason is the American market being so huge there is not much room for anything of interest outside this massive country. Basically, the average American is inundated and overwhelmed with national news here that the rest of the world pales in comparison. Things happening "over there" are just not as relevant to daily life "over here.". Of course, there are plenty here who are interested in world events.

    Sadly, some of my international associates have had a negative view of the U.S. That is why I read the international news reports so I can obtain a more balanced view of events here in the U.S. Looking from "over there" back to "over here," I can more fully understand their opinions.

    I did not mean to disrespect your original statement by any means, but often times all Americans get lumped into the same stereotypical pile. During your recent trip to Florida, you probably noticed that Floridians were nothing like you expected Americans to be from TV and cinema. Every state, and also different regions in each state, can have different cultures. I trust you had an excellent working vacation over here.

    Focusing on the larger and popular markets might actually enhance innovation. I am not advocating a single world language, but with English being the de facto lingua franca (fancy that choice of vocabulary), more people can communicate in the same language despite the myriad of native tongues. I hate that one language is favored over another, but thinking back to business procedures, many times for one product to win, another must lose.

    Anyway, I appreciate your opinion article being posted. You certainly see things in a clearer light than most others. I enjoy reading what you have to say.


  6. This might be true for web sites and more generally media (series, blockbuster,etc) , i.e "cultural" goods, but regarding more traditional industries, I don't think than the latest device made by Sony or Samsung is less *advanced* because it does not come from the U.S.

    And more and more we are going to see high end products coming from India or China.

    Have a look at "reverse innovation" on Google. It is a theory/strategy to develop products in emerging market first, before selling them in so called "developed" countries.

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