10 East and Southeast Asian Languages – A Definitive List

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Two out of the ten most popular languages in the world derive from East Asia. Chinese and Japanese are officially the most spoken languages worldwide, each standing at first and ninth place, respectively. However, East and Southeast Asian languages go far beyond just Chinese and Japanese – Malay, Burmese, and Thai are just a few of the additional common languages spoken in these regions.

After listing the most popular African languages in our previous blog post, we’ve taken the time to unravel Asian languages, too. So, from Indonesian to Korean, we present to you a definitive list of East and Southeast Asian languages and their interesting facts…

Mandarin (Chinese)

Mandarin is the official language of China. Titled the most natively spoken language in the world, Mandarin is said to have almost a billion speakers worldwide. It is also listed as one of the most recommended languages to translate your website into. Taught in all schools nationwide, Mandarin is based on a Beijing dialect and its words are generally recognized with their “儿 (ér)” sound at the end. Other forms of Chinese used across China include Cantonese, Hokkien, Wu, Gan, Xiang, Min, and Hakka. Chinese characters are called “logograms”. There are over 100,000 of these characters and each one represents a word or phrase. Additionally, Chinese has four tones along with a neutral tone with each one used to differentiate words.

Fun Fact? It is believed that those who speak Chinese use both sides of their brain (temporal lobes). English speakers, for example only use their left side. These temporal lobes are used to differentiate between words.


Malay

Used in countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and of course, Malaysia, Malay is spoken by more than 20 million people worldwide. Also known as “Bahasa Melayu”, this Southeast Asian language has two different dialects. The northern dialect is spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei while the southern dialect is used in Indonesia. Believe it or not, Malay has been the inspiration for several English words. “Cockatoo” for example, comes from the word “kakatua” in Malay, which is a name of a bird. “Sarong” was inspired by the word “sarung”, which is a type of sheath or covering.


Bonus Fun Fact? Malay and Indonesian are extremely similar languages, in the same way American and British English are.


Indonesian

As mentioned earlier, Indonesian and Malay are closely related. As a matter of fact, it is considered a dialect of the Malay language with the differences only lying in vocabulary and accent. Indonesian is believed to be the native language of approximately 23 million people. It is also spoken by a said 156 million people as a second language. Unlike languages like Mandarin and Japanese which have their own writing script, Indonesian uses the Latin script. For this reason, it is considered one of the easiest Asian languages to learn.


Fun Fact? Indonesian is the third most used language in WordPress. There are more than 1.5 million Indonesian blogs on the CMS.


Burmese

Burmese, also known as “myanma bhasa” is the official language of Myanmar. It is spoken by over 50 million people around the world, with most speakers based in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and of course, Burma. Burmese is a tonal language, which means one word could have several different meanings depending on its tone (high or low sound, for example).


Fun Fact? The Burmese script uses rounded letters due to the traditional use of palm leaves as writing material. Any straight lines would have torn the leaves. The Burmese script is known as “ca-lonh”, meaning ’round script’.


Thai

Spoken by around 60 million people globally, Thai is the official language of Thailand, but it is also spoken in countries like Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. There are different dialects of the language according to different areas of the country, and there are also varying registers (in Standard Thai) including Street Thai (spoken to friends), Elegant Thai (to strangers), Rhetorical Thai (for public speaking), Religious Thai (to monks), and Royal Thai (spoken to or about the royal family).


Fun Fact? Unlike Western languages, Thai words do not change according to tenses, plurals, or genders.


Japanese

Japanese is spoken by more than 120 million people in Japan and it is ranked as the 9th most popular language in the world. This Asian language is considered one of the most difficult and complex to learn in terms of writing. There are four systems of writing which include kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and includes 2000 characters; Hiragana is the most original writing system which is used for simple words and even children’s literature; Katakana is used when writing foreign words and finally, Romaji is a romanised form of Japanese words. It’s also worth noting that Japanese is one of the only Asian languages that isn’t tonal.


Fun Fact? Japanese speakers make up less than 2% of the world’s population but nearly 10% of internet users.

Vietnamese

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam and it is also spoken by many people in countries like Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, and Thailand. It is a language that’s very much influenced by Chinese although it does have some French influences. Spoken by more than 70 million people worldwide, Vietnamese was once written using Chinese characters, as China ruled the area in historic times. By the 17th century however, the Latin alphabet took over due to French colonial rule.


Fun Fact? Countries like Germany are using Vietnamese as a popular foreign language to study due to the many Germans making economic investments in Vietnam.


Korean

Korean is spoken by roughly 80 million speakers around the world. Used as the official language in both North and South Korea, Korean is also spoken by millions in China, the United States, Japan, and even Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Despite its distinct grammar, up to 60% of Korean words have Chinese origin. When it comes to translation? Due to the difference in alphabets and script size and lengths, Korean documents are usually difficult to translate, especially when it comes to the Latin alphabet. For example, more space will be required for bigger words and additional characters.


Fun Fact? Korean letter shapes are made to look like the tongue, mouth, and teeth when articulating their sounds.


Filipino

The Philippines may have 130 languages but its official and most popular is Filipino. It is also spoken in other nations such as the United States. Filipino is often confused with the Tagalog language but in fact, Tagalog is said to be the foundation of the Filipino language. They have the same grammar and vocabulary, but Tagalog is mainly spoken in Central Luzon, while Filipino is spoken nationwide.


Fun Fact? Tagalog is heavily influenced by the Spanish language. 40% of its vocabulary consists of Spanish words and its influence has been passed down to Filipino to this very day.

Mongolian

Mongolian is spoken by approximately 2,000,000 people. It is the official language of Mongolia and is also used by some of its surrounding areas. Although it is considered one of the least spoken languages in the world, it is still a significant Asian language. In fact, it is one of the oldest languages of our time, and it is referred to as one of the most complicated to learn. Believe it or not, Mongolian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, although it is very distinct from the Russian language. It does however, borrow Russian words for technology-related terms.



Fun Fact? Although it has a totally different alphabet, Mongolian is actually like Japanese and Korean in terms of grammar and sentence structures. It is said to have more vowels compared to other popular languages in the world.

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Top 10 Most Popular African Languages

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Want to enter the African market? Does your product/service tailor to one of the largest continents in the world? It’s time to consider translating and localizing your content. There are over 1000 African languages in existence so it can be quite mind-boggling trying to nail down which one you should choose to offer your product or service in. Luckily enough, we’ve listed the 10 most popular languages spoken in Africa…

1. SWAHILI

The most spoken language in Africa is Swahili which is said to have over 100 million speakers. Known as a ‘Bantu’ language, Swahili apparently originated from other languages like Arabic. This is the official language of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya but it is also used in places like Ethiopia, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, southern Somalia, northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands. Swahili is the main medium of instruction in schools and it’s not considered a difficult language to learn, especially if you already know some Arabic.


Fun Fact? Swahili was the language used in The Lion King. Remember ‘Hakuna Matata’? That means no worries in Swahili and ‘Simba’ means ‘lion’!


2. AMHARIC

Amharic is the main language spoken in Ethiopia by over 20 million speakers. It is considered the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic – these are languages that originate from the Middle East alongside Hebrew, Tigrinya and more. Amharic is written using the very unique Ge’ez writing system known as ‘fidel’.

Fun Fact? The capital of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa – this means “new flower” in Amharic.


3. YORUBA

There are over 30 million Yoruba speakers in Nigeria, Benin and Togo combined, making it one of West Africa’s most spoken languages. This African language has more than 15 dialects including Ekiti, Ijebu, Oworo, Ijesha and Akoko.


Fun Fact? The name Yoruba is also associated with the Yoruba Ethnic Group, which is one of the largest African ethnic groups in the region.


4. OROMO

A significant language spoken in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Egypt is Oromo. Approximately 30 million people use this language and its people account for over 40% of the Ethiopian population. Believe it or not, the Oromos people were forbidden from writing this language between 1974 and 1991. In fact, it was considered a crime. Later however, Oromo scholars adopted a Latin script and it was then used to teach reading and writing.


Fun Fact? The Oromo language is actually called Afaan Oromoo.


5. Hausa

As one of Nigeria’s official languages, Hausa has over 40 million speakers around the continent. It is also spoken in countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Germany, Ghana, Niger, Sudan, Togo and a lot of North Africa. Hausa uses the Boko and Latin alphabet and it is said to be one of the most advanced languages in Africa as a whole.


Fun Fact? Hausa is the only Nigerian language that has foreign station broadcasts. These include the BBC, Voice of Russia and Radio France Internationale.


6. IGBO

Alongside Nigeria, IGBO is also spoken in countries like Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. This popular African language is spoken by 20 million people and it has over 20 individual dialects including Owerri, Eche and of course, Central Igbo. Most Igbo speakers are said to be bilingual in English as it is the principal literary language taught in Nigerian schools.


Fun Fact? The IGBO language gained prominence from Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” and whose majority of books were written in IGBO.

7. ZULU

One of the most widely spoken languages of South Africa, Zulu is said to be used by over 10 million people. Part of the Bantu language group, Zulu is very much related to other languages including Xhosa and Ndebele. As a matter of fact, Zulu and Xhosa have such similar dialects, that many wrongly mistake them for being one language.


Fun Fact? “Zulu” is not only a language, it is also the largest Ethnic group in South Africa.


8. SHONA

Most prominently spoken in Zimbabwe along with English, Shona is an African language used by over 10 million people. There are 3 distinct Shona dialects including the Karanga, the Zezuru and the Korekore. Stemming from the Bantu/Nguni language family, Shona uses the Latin script in its writing system.


Fun Fact? There are two different versions of Shona used for different purposes. A “low” variety of the language is used on a more casual basis like at home, while the “high” variety is used when praying.


9. ARABIC

Spoken by 280 million people worldwide, Arabic is also used by people in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya and Eritrea. There is Modern Standard Arabic which is mainly used in communication with most Arabic speakers. This is the dialect used to write the language and is present in media and books. Classical Arabic, on the other hand, is mainly used to learn the language in an academic way.


Fun Fact? Arabic is one of the six most spoken languages in the world!


10. PORTUGUESE

Did you know that Portuguese is the official language of six African states? Known as “Lusophone Africa”, these states include Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and Equatorial Guinea. Portuguese is used as a mother tongue by approximately 14 million people on this continent and it is said that there are around 30 million people who use it as a second language.


Fun Fact? Portuguese is actually the working languages of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community.


11. FRENCH

There are 26 African states that make up “Francophone Africa”. The top French-speaking countries in this continent include Gabon, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Sao Tome e Principe. Apart from these, French is also spoken by in North African countries including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Overall, French is spoken by over 120 million people in Africa.


Fun Fact? It is expected that there will be over 700 million French speakres in the world by 2050 – 80% will be located in Africa.


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Lost & Found in Translation: The Importance of Context

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For years, writers and marketeers have said that “content is king.” Well, that’s still true, but in a global marketplace, where reaching different geographical audiences is the name of the game, you could also say that “context is king.”


We’ve all heard the old joke about the generic survey question… Sex? No thanks, I’m married! While in the UK it’s a corny stand-up line, in some Eastern European countries, it takes the form of an anecdote. True story? We’ll never know!


These days, most survey compilers prefer to use the term “gender.” It’s more neutral, more inclusive, and while it means the famous gag will probably die out in a few years, perhaps that’s no great loss.


The point for translators, however, is that context is key. Misunderstanding the context of a word or phrase might be the basis for comedy routines the world over, but when a multi-billion dollar transnational conglomerate gets it wrong, they really aren’t laughing. Mind you, translation fails can still raise a chuckle for the rest of us!


Take American brewer Coors, for example. Their “Turn It Loose” campaign made headlines in Spain for all the wrong reasons a few years ago. Translated into Spanish, the expression could also be interpreted as, ahem, “Suffer from diarrhoea”… Ay, Dios mio!


Or how about auto giant Ford? They scored an epic fail with a Belgian ad campaign. Instead of promoting their original slogan: “Every car has a high-quality body,” they cheerfully announced that “Every car has a high-quality corpse.” Ouch!


And spare a thought for Swedish vacuum maker Electrolux and the excitement they felt over the unprecedented cleaning power of their new model, which inspired their proposed U.S. slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” Someone must have been carpeted for that one. What? Oh, that’s a British idiom for severely reprimanded. Tricky business, this localization lark, isn’t it?


To interpret the meaning of a source text correctly, whether you’re dealing with a financial translation or technical product descriptions, professional linguists need as much additional detail as possible. There are times when certain sections have to be translated word-for-word, and that’s why it’s essential for a translator to be given a proper brief, so that they’re fully aware of the overall concept.


Not every word has an exact equivalent in other languages. The art of translation is, above all, about converting the sense and tone of copy across language barriers. This not only requires professional translators who are genuinely bilingual, but who have proper expertise in the relevant industry. Google Translate might be able to give you the gist of a text, but when its algorithm translates Amsterdam from Dutch into English as London, you can instantly understand the limits of machine translation.


The human race has been wrestling with problems like these since… oh, the Tower of Babel? 500 years ago, the Catholic Church adopted the Vulgate as its official Latin version of the Hebrew text of the Bible. It contained the rather unfortunate error that Moses’ “face was horned from the conversation of the Lord” instead of “his face shone” as it should have read. And that was the sculptural brief given to a certain Michelangelo Buonarroti… he didn’t mean to be anti-semantic!
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When Translation Goes Wrong

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Translation isn’t as simple as many assume. It’s not just a matter of changing each word from the source text into the target language. It involves understanding and rewording the context, the syntax, idioms and any other important linguistic components.


The process can often throw up major translation mistakes – some funny and others not so much. From advertising blunders to life-threatening errors, here are a few infamous moments when translation went terribly wrong. You won’t know whether to laugh or cry…


Eat Your Fingers Off

KFC wanted their customers to enjoy their fried chicken a little too much back in 1987. When Colonel Sanders launched his very first mainland China KFC outlet, the company’s famous slogan – “Finger Lickin’ Good” – was catastrophically translated into Mandarin as “Eat Your Fingers Off.” Not so appetizing, eh? In these hyper-litigious days, I’m sure KFC would have been hit by a few lawsuits had their customers taken that phrase literally! Luckily, the mistranslated slogan didn’t doom the brand. It was quickly changed and today there are over 900 KFC restaurants in China.


A Medical Mistake

In Willie Ramirez’ case, a simple language barrier had tragic consequences. The 18-year-old had been admitted to a Florida hospital in 1980 in a comatose state. His family and friends were convinced that he had suffered food poisoning, but had struggled to describe his condition to doctors as they only spoke Spanish. A member of staff heard the word “intoxicado” and that’s when things started to go badly wrong. These two words may sound similar but have very different meanings in the two languages – poisoned in Spanish and under the influence of drugs or alcohol in English. The doctors proceeded to treat Ramirez as though he was suffering from a drug overdose and only later discovered that he was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage. The misdiagnosis and delay in treatment sadly left Ramirez quadriplegic. A resulting lawsuit ended in a settlement of $71 million.


American Dia-Beer

Here’s a super embarrassing example of a marketing translation gone wrong. Most businesses want to make a good first impression when expanding their campaign to a new country. American beer brand Coors didn’t exactly start off on the right foot in Spain. Their “Turn It Loose” tagline – when translated into Spanish – became “Suffer From Diarrhea.” No thanks! Sometimes you’ve got to laugh!


A Biblical Blunder

Ever wondered why Michelangelo’s infamous sculpture of Moses has horns? Funnily enough, St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, is to blame. When he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin, he made a big-time blunder. In the Bible, Moses is described as having a kind of radiance on his face, or in Hebrew: “karan.” Because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read “karan” as “keren,” which can mean “grew horns.” This subtle but significant error influenced several future paintings, sculptures and depictions of Moses, with two horns on his head. St. Jerome’s Latin version of the Bible went on to become the basis for hundreds of successive translations and they too, contained this famous mistake…


As you can see from these examples, translating one language into another can be fraught with difficulty. Translation fails have made us laugh over the years, but they can also have disastrous outcomes. Our advice? As mentioned in our previous blog post about using a skilled translator, it’s best you turn to a professional language translation service – they’ll guarantee to produce an accurate text – with no embarrassing or near-fatal – errors.
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