Disney+ (or -) a few languages: Why companies continue to “assume the world speaks English”

The New York Times reports that Iceland has appealed to Disney to support Icelandic. And what began as a Facebook post by the country’s education minister has grown into a national movement.

But Disney doesn’t just fall short of Icelandic, notes the article:

The Disney+ service offers subtitles and audio dubs in up to 16 languages, according to its website, although the availability varies by title. The company also says it plans to add more languages as the service becomes available in more countries.

Just 16 languages. Despite being a global company, Disney lags its peers in support for languages. Based on the 2020 Web Globalization Report Card, the average leading global brand supports 33 languages. And I’m quite certain that number won’t drop in the 2021 edition (now underway).

Netflix does not emerge unscathed either:

The absence of Icelandic has not been a deal breaker for other streaming services. Roughly 70 percent of Icelandic households in the country subscribe to Netflix, according to a 2020 Gallup poll — among the highest rate in the world — and its shows mostly do not have Icelandic subtitles.

But this is Disney we’re talking about — movies that children are raised on, which means not raised on Icelandic. Apparently, Disney has dubbed older version of films but has not made them available in the streaming service, a significant oversight.

“I do wonder why they don’t at least offer the old versions,” Thorarinn Eldjarn, an author who has translated dozens of children’s books into Icelandic over his long career, said in an interview. “Either they think Iceland is too small and unimportant to bother with, or they assume everyone understands English.”

“They assume everyone understands English.” This remains a common assumption (or wishful thinking) among many global executives. It’s not easy marketing to the world, serving the world. If everyone spoke one language things would be so much simpler — or so the thinking goes.

It would actually not be that simple, because language is just the tip of the localization iceberg. There are so many cultural, political and personal challenges as well. Nevertheless, executives continue to under-invest in languages under this mistaken assumption.

I’ll be saying much more about this when we publish the 2021 Web Globalization Report Card. For now I will just say that Disney has much work to do — not only in expanding the linguistic reach of its content — but its global website as well. For starters, Disney does not even offer a localized website for Iceland, though sends cruise ships to Iceland:

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