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The limitations of English-only market research

24 Apr 2024
Do you speak English? Man in suit writes these words on a transparent screen

The increasingly globalised nature of business means that there is more and more demand to for market research across national borders. However, in this quest for global understanding, researchers face the issue of language barriers. While it’s tempting for businesses – especially those that operate with English as their corporate language – to try to contain market research costs by conducting market research exclusively in English, this approach may not always yield the most insightful results. This short blog highlights the importance of balancing cost considerations with the desire to uncover deep and nuanced insights when conducting international market research.

The cost-effectiveness of English-only research

At first glance, conducting market research in English, regardless of the geographic location, appears highly cost-effective since it avoids the expenses associated with hiring moderators who speak the native language, simultaneous translators, and the costs tied to the translation of research materials. Besides saving money, working this way also simplifies the logistical process and provides a more straightforward path to data collection and analysis, enabling insights to be obtained more quickly.

The value of local language insights in market research

However, the simplicity and cost savings associated with an English-only approach must be weighed against the potential loss of depth and nuance in the insights gathered. Language is deeply intertwined with culture; the words people use and how they use them reflect their values, beliefs, and experiences. Conducting research in a local language allows respondents to express themselves more naturally and accurately, capturing the subtleties of their thoughts and feelings. This can lead to richer, more actionable insights that might be missed when operating solely in English.

Limitations of conducting research in a non-native language

Moreover, in markets where English is not widely spoken or understood, insisting on English-only research will limit the participant pool and bias the sample towards better educated (and perhaps younger) segments of the population. There can also be issues around participants’ ability to understand an English-speaking moderator if English is their second language (particularly if the moderator’s accent is unfamiliar to them), and even if they understand what the moderator is asking, they may be able to express their views fully and clearly in English.

As an example of what can go wrong, a client recently asked us to recruit young people who lived in Brazil but planned to study at a British university for a series of focus groups which they would moderate in English. You would expect this to be quite a promising segment of the population for research in English, since the target group believed they could speak the language well enough to complete a degree course delivered in English. However, after running a couple of groups in English, the client asked to run the rest of the research in Portuguese because they ran into difficulties with both comprehension and articulation, and ultimately they felt that working in English was compromising the usefulness of the research.


In conclusion, while the allure of cost and simplicity may make English-only research an attractive option, businesses must carefully consider the trade-offs. The ultimate goal of market research is to uncover insights that can drive strategy and growth. Therefore, investing in native-speaking resources or translation services may be warranted to ensure the depth and accuracy of insights. In markets where language poses a significant barrier, the additional expense is not just a cost but an investment in the quality and applicability of the research findings. As the global market continues to evolve, the ability to navigate its linguistic diversity will become a competitive edge for businesses seeking to truly understand and engage with their international customers.

FieldworkHub are specialists in conducting research in international markets: we have run projects in over 40 countries in the last 12 months. If you need help with carrying out market research in different countries, we're always ready to advise. Contact us today to discuss your next international project.

FieldworkHub is an agile, knowledgeable market research fieldwork agency providing high-quality focus group recruitment as part of our full range of qualitative and quantitative fieldwork services.
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