Europe's €8.4bn language industry is set to grow by 10% annually over the next few years after having recorded one of the highest growth rates of any EU industrial sector despite the economic crisis, according to a European Commission-backed study published last Friday (27 November).
The study on the size of the EU language industry, the first of its kind, found that the bloc's language sector recorded turnover of €8.4bn in 2008.
If growth continues as projected, then the industry will be posting turnover of between €16.5bn and €20bn by 2015, the study predicts, making the language sector one of the largest growth industries in Europe.
Language sector 'less affected' by crisis
"The language industry seems to be less affected by the financial crisis than other industry sectors," it found.
Putting the growth down to the fact that "the industry is different from what it was years ago," Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban said "the rise of new fields such as subtitling, localisation and editing" had shown that European language professionals "need to acquire new competences".
"The European Commission supports the development of such competences, for instance by promoting the European Masters in translation," Orban added.
Carried out by the Language Technology Centre, a UK-based company, on behalf of the EU executive, the report found that the language market is becoming increasingly consolidated among major players.
However, low barriers to entry in the translation and interpreting fields mean that market is characterised by many players and substantial competition, it asserts.
The study also drew attention to the positive effects of globalisation, which demand translation and interpreting into new languages, and other new language-related services.
€5.7bn of the turnover generated in 2008 related to translation and interpreting. But Karl-Johan Lönnroth, director-general of the Commission's translation department, was quick to stress that "the language industry about much more than translation and interpreting – it's about subtitling, education, dubbing and language technologies".
Indeed, the study encompassed the industry sectors of software localisation, website globalisation, language technology tools (€568m), language teaching (€1.6bn), subtitling and dubbing (€633m), consultancy in linguistic issues, provision of language services in corporate environments, and organisation of international conferences (€143m) alongside translation and interpreting.
"Even in the UK, with English as a lingua franca tool of communication, the language industry is massive," Lönnroth said, adding: "It's a growth sector that is here to stay, and is helping the economy in general to grow. Globalisation means that English is not enough."
Indeed, the study found that many foreign companies – and especially SMEs with limited funds - underestimate the impact of properly presenting their products and services in the target country's language, putting them at a disadvantage compared to national competitors.
"We're seeing a paradigm shift: languages are seen as boosting economic growth rather than being a cost," said Lönnroth, claiming that "you cannot sell your product if you don't speak the language of your market".
Meanwhile, "a considerable lack of properly skilled human resources" is forcing European companies to turn to machine translation to satisfy their needs, the study found, predicting that such tools are likely to be used more widely in future.
Positive impact of enlargement
The study found that growth in the language sector was particularly impressive in Eastern Europe as multinational companies seek to establish themselves there in the wake of the EU's 2004 and 2007 enlargements.
"Enlargement has led to Eastern European languages being considered international languages for the first time. Eastern Europe also has high technological skills, and we're seeing a shift in the language sector towards the region," said the EU executive's Lönnroth.
The European Commission will use the study's findings to improve its training methods and update its own statistical databases.
"The language industry has both an economic and strategic importance. Economic, because of its size, its resistance to the present crisis and especially its future potential. Strategic, because it is essential to preserving people's identities and culture and to coping in a globalised world," said EU Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban, commenting on the study's findings.
Presenting the study in Brussels on Friday, Karl-Johan Lönnroth, director-general of the European Commission's translation department, said "language learning isn't just a hobby. It can give you access to a wide variety of occupations, which is of course important given the economic crisis."
"We'll use these findings to improve our statistical database and improve the training on offer," he added.
Adriane Rinsche of UK firm the Language Technology Centre, one of the study's authors, said the EU language industry was likely much bigger than the report had found.
"Our estimate is extremely conservative. It's an absolute minimum as we didn't want to over-estimate anything. The industry is likely much bigger," she said.
Stressing the importance for companies of communicating in the language of their customers, Rinsche claimed that "you're completely out of a local market if you cannot compete with the local companies in the native language of the country".
"It is necessary to actively and visibly address and promote the importance of overcoming language barriers in order to ensure economic success for European companies within and outside Europe much more than is currently the case," concluded the study, carried out by the Language Technology Centre on behalf of the European Commission.