The Changing Language of Research: Why English is Not Always the Right Choice - Multilingual Connections

The Changing Language of Research: Why English is Not Always the Right Choice

The changing language of research: why English is not always the right choice
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We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!

As US brands expand operations globally, it is tempting to assume that English will suffice for communication with customers. Yet out of the 8 billion inhabitants on the earth, only about 1.4 billion speak English. And while that amounts to about 20% of the world, only about 360 million claim English as their first language. Even within English, there are vastly different usages of certain words. Consider this:

translation differences between British and American English for boot

Even when the language is the same, the words themselves can have very different meanings. 

To confuse things further, consider this: 

funny translation differences

Even when the words are understood, the meaning may be lost. 

To confuse things even further, let’s take that show on the road: 

united states break down of soda labeling

Regional preferences, slang and other cultural nuances also have a big impact on language use.

These geographic and culture-driven nuances extend beyond the English language – French, as spoken in France, is different from French spoken in Canada. Spanish is the official language of 21 different countries, but the cultures and histories of those countries vary greatly – impacting many things, language included. The number of languages spoken throughout Asia Pacific is staggering, even before you add the number of dialects spoken. The Philippines alone is home to approximately 170 dialects. India, with 16 official spoken languages, boasts over 19,500 dialects.  

With such great variation in language, many companies settle on English as the easier option for conducting market research. But taking a deeper look at what successful brands know about successful global expansion brings many leaders to acknowledge that English is not always the right choice for global market research.  

Localization is key for global expansion 

Even while thinking globally, brands must operate locally. And one undercurrent that is picking up momentum is a move toward localizing to the needs of specific markets, one by one. In effect, brands are looking to “translate” their products and services far beyond the reach of language. They are translating their goods into relevant local experiences. This is highly visible when played out in product delivery as brands show up differently around the world. A clear example is the ubiquitous McDonald’s brand: 

McDonalds serves different menu items in different countries

When products cross a language border, the words need to be translated. 
When products cross a cultural border, the context needs to be considered. 

You can bring a burger to a new country, but without placing it into the right context, the experience is one of “otherness” and not integration. When consuming an American hamburger outside of the US, you are also consuming the culture it came from. The winning strategy is that McDonalds does not simply move a burger to a new location, but reinterprets the experience to fit more seamlessly with the culture of its new market. People can and do eat American-style burgers in Japan. But when you want the consumer to have a culturally relevant experience, the cultural translation is key. 

When market research studies cross a language border,
the words need to be translated. 
When market research studies cross a cultural border,
the context needs to be considered.

You can bring a survey to a new country, but without placing it into the right context, the experience is one of “otherness” and not integration. It’s not that participants are necessarily unable to complete market research in a non-native language – as noted earlier, many people around the world speak English as a second or third language – but when you want to understand the consumer and get quality insights, it’s important to hear their voice and their words. The winning strategy is providing the language that finds the research participant within their own culture. Quality insights come from accessing deeply personal and reflective responses. And that means in their language and within its proper context. 

Around the world and back home again

These efforts are not only needed when work goes global. There’s an obvious danger in being too English-centric when doing research overseas, but this risk factor extends into the lack of sensitivity about the changing face of America. It’s not just the need for translation services related to global research; there’s a huge and growing need right here in the US. As is stated by Dr. Jill Kushner Bishop, our Founder & CEO here at Multilingual Connections, “We are seeing a much more diverse population, and language and culture play an important part of understanding these different types of consumers and their needs at a deep level.” According to the 2017 US Census, one in five people in the U.S. speaks a language other than English when at home. 

Rethinking English as the language of choice 

From the US to Uruguay, choosing English for market research may not be the best approach. As brands look to research data to inform marketing messaging, that messaging may end up unduly skewed simply because of a lack of translation. For brands to get a true sense of customer sentiment or to identify unmet needs in the market, much can be missed if the study is not completed in the respondents’ native language. Firms still asking, “Can’t we just do it in English?” miss the most important issue regarding quality insights. If compelling non-English speakers to respond in English runs the risk of limiting personalized insights and getting less precise responses, the data can be compromised. For high-quality outcomes, the best advice is to create high-quality inputs which require professional translation of qualitative and quantitative work alike.

Evaluating professional translation services

Even then – not just any translator will do. The easy answer is “Hire the best!” But in today’s fast-paced business environment, market research teams are often asked to do more with less. Even with best practices pointing to the need for translation of market research, both here and abroad, every brand has budget realities and time limitations to consider. 

The questions that follow include budget realities, time requirements for running a study in multiple languages, and how to go about evaluating the quality of translated work. As more market research teams choose to move beyond English, the cost of translation must be balanced with the overall research budget. While important components of the evaluation project, budget and time should take a backseat to the most important consideration – the degree of precision needed for the work outcomes. But all three play a critical role when evaluating translation services:


They say a penny saved is a penny earned, and that is true for market research planning. To properly set a budget for market research translation, proper scoping of the work is key. If translation is a necessary component to the market research study, knowing answers to these questions can help get the project set up for budget success:

  • What content needs to be translated and into which languages? For example, with surveys, will I only need to translate the outgoing surveys or will I also need to translate open-ended responses? If doing interviews or focus groups, do I need a native-language researcher or do I need an interpreter?
  • In what file format and/or platform will the content needing translation or transcription be stored?
  • What is my timeline for finishing the content and conducting the research, and when do I need to final translations? Do I need to send and receive content on a rolling basis or all at once?
  • Will I or someone on the team review the translations for preferential changes and, if so, did I build that into the timeline?
  • How will these transcripts be used – for internal analysis or for external purposes? For example, external-facing surveys require a full translation + edit/proof. But, open-end responses may only need a one-step process to get the quality needed for internal analysis.

To stay on budget, market research projects that require translation involve a language solutions partner in the earliest pre-planning phases. Translation experts not only anticipate budget pitfalls, but also move the project forward by sticking to timelines, which saves money indirectly. Too often, budgets are blown due to a lack of great planning. Conversely, budgets can be clarified and adhered to when great translation starts with forward-thinking and proactive planning. 


Naturally, one of the most important things impacting cost is time. There needs to be enough time allotted to handle the back-and-forthing that is sometimes required between two languages or a multiple-language project. Unfortunately, tighter timelines usually equal higher costs – so time really is of the essence!

The sooner a market research translation agency can be involved in the process, the more they are able to help manage costs. It’s not just having advance time itself (which is important), but also the time to think through the details before the project starts. Before a project goes into field, a great partner can help distinguish priorities (in terms of time and needed deliverables) and set goals. With those in mind, the team can work backward to achieve success (like adjusting the number of people working on a project to ensure faster delivery when required, or even finding translators who are willing to work over holidays).

A great translation team also has a deep understanding of the culture behind the language. Translation experts are mindful of everything from social customs to local holidays unique to that country that might impact the timeline (e.g. Ramadan, India’s Diwali, Japan’s Golden Week). While the holidays themselves are not pertinent to the work itself, they impact the availability of translators in local markets. 

Preparation, coupled with partnership, creates a firm foundation for any research project. From kick-off logistics to the “how’s” of execution, working with a language partner can alleviate time pressure, ensure accuracy, and help meet deadlines. 


If you were going to sign your name to a Turkish-language legal document (such as a power of attorney document or a financial tax return), you would want to make sure that the document was properly translated (as opposed to loosely translated) in order to make sure there are no misunderstandings and that you are protected.

Extending that example to market research, if the brand is using insights to inform an R&D decision with a six-figure budget, the confidence level needed in the quality and cultural relevance of the translated survey open-ends would matter greatly. The degree of expertise needed for the translation work should be commensurate to the degree of certainty required from the data.

It’s also important for researchers – just as it is for translators – to remember that we are all products of our culture. Each one comes with inherent biases. Keeping extreme objectivity in mind as your goal, it’s important to make allowances that minimize any bias from impacting your analysis. Knowing an expert team with quality assurance checks and balances is handling the translation of your research project both as it goes into the field and as the findings are re-translated back for your analysis is incredibly important. 

Are we there yet? A roadmap for global research translation

Preparing for your next global research project?
This roadmap can help. 

Want to stay connected?

We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!