Kick-off Your Business in Southeast Asia – No Translator Required

Kick-off Your Business in Southeast Asia – No Translator Required

Ready to expand your products and services to Southeast Asia? Can’t afford to hire a team of translators to localize your website? No problem. In some countries English will suffice for a good jump start. In the following post we’ll examine in which Southeast Asian countries it’s enough to only have an English website version.

The Lingua Franca of Southeast Asia

We’ve already talked about French being a regional lingua franca in Africa. Lingua franca is a language adopted as a common language between speakers whose native tongues are different. But did you know that English has become a lingua franca in Southeast Asian countries? To help you with your global marketing strategy we’ve devised a map showing the level of English proficiency in the region:

Southeast Asia English proficency infographic

Source: GFluence

The Golden Four

Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore are countries where more than 60% of the population speaks English. Reason? The spread of English to Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore was caused by British colonization, its spread to the Philippines was due to US colonization.

The fact that English is almost as strong as local languages, testifies the term linguists call “New Englishes“. “New Englishes” refers to English spoken in territories outside regional and national varieties of the English language used in places where it is not the mother tongue of the majority of the population. The power of Southeast Asian New Englishes is so strong that each variation carries its own cultural value. These are becoming more important than the cultural context of native English speakers. In “The Golden Four” you can easily launch your website only in English.

The Confused Trio

The reason why we are calling Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand “The Confused Trio”, is due to our International SEO research. While checking local websites of several international brands we arrived at different conclusions. Vietnam has a 54% English proficiency rate – the highest among all three countries. The sports retail giant Adidas has its website localized only in English. But the Starbucks Vietnamese website is offered in both language version, where as McDonald’s local website is only in Vietnamese.

The reason behind the differences is closely connected with market recognition and visibility. Adidas is well known throughout Southeast Asia having many of its manufacturing located in the area. But the first McDonald’s came to Vietnam in 2014.

When you decide to enter any of the markets within “The Confused Trio”, make sure to do proper SEO research. How well known or if even is your brand? Does the majority of your target audience speak English or not? If the answers are more on the negative than on the positive side, than adapting your website for the local language will be necessary.

Low English Proficiency – Just Temporary?

Even though Cambodia, East Timor, Laos and Myanmar classify as countries with low English proficiency rates, this might change. Governments are well aware that these low rates are slowing down the economy growth. That is why there have been several attempts of reforming the status of English in local educational systems. Currently reforms are slow. In Laos and Cambodia, both former French colonies, English has to compete with French. In East Timor the competitor is Portuguese. Currently, it’s much more worth it to have the appropriate local language website version.

Looking to expand to Southeast Asian markets? Or wondering where else could you profit from only having an English website? Share your business ambitions with us and we’ll help you devise the right global marketing strategy.


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Polona Golob

Polona Golob

Enjoys a good crossword puzzle and matching keywords is her favorite.

Entries by Polona Golob