Advocates have long touted cryptocurrencies’ ability to transcend national borders. At the same time, language may be creating barriers to crypto’s growth.

There was a link between language translation and bitcoin’s (BTC) popularity in China, Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer for crypto investment products company CoinShares, said last month at the Brains and Chains conference in New York.

“When the first sort of bitcoin scaling craze started, there was no Asian language version of the bitcoin whitepaper,” she explained, referring to the initial document creator Satoshi Nakamoto wrote outlining how the currency could function. It was only after the document was translated into simplified Chinese characters, Demirors added, that the market took off in China.

Buying a cryptocurrency without understanding what it is you’re buying requires a leap of faith.

Exploded might be a better description. From early 2014 until early 2017, when the Chinese government began to take steps to limit trading, the majority of trades from bitcoin to a fiat currency were to Chinese yuan. Last September, Beijing ordered mainland exchanges to shut down and declared initial coin offerings illegal. Even so, the country’s best-funded blockchain startup is Bitmain, which makes powerful crypto-mining devices. Its website is available in English and Chinese, of course.

Language, according to Demirors, is one of blockchain’s most interesting challenges.

The problem is not just one of translation. The crypto community has long faced a need to better define and limit the sprawl of its burgeoning, and often confusing, terminology, as ThirtyK has reported. To continue to grow, cryptocurrencies must be understandable and accessible. Otherwise, they’ll never be truly international.

“The community has been very English-language and U.S.-centric in focus, but in fact there are all of these niche communities and protocols springing up in different parts of the world that are really optimized for local languages, local cultures and customs,” Demirors said. Waves, which she said “is heavily focused on the Eastern European community,” is one example. Its white paper is in Russian but no other European language.

Well-known cryptocurrency websites offer multiple languages, but often only a handful. For example, bitcoin.org, a site established by the currency’s founders, offers documentation in English, Italian, Russian, Swedish and two different Spanish dialects. Five other languages, including simplified and traditional Chinese, are available on bitcoin information site satoshinakamoto.me.

Accessibility Limits Trade

For commercial sites that trade or store cryptocurrencies on behalf of customers, a lack of languages can put a damper on business. Don DePalma, chief strategy officer for translation research firm Common Sense Advisory, told ThirtyK, “Buyers stick to their own language when buying high-value items.” In CSA’s 10-country survey, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy,” 64 percent of consumers who say they speak English well refuse to buy financial services from sites that aren’t in their native language. “That number jumps to 86 percent for people who have limited ability in English,” DePalma added.

As a result, Demirors said, “Even though we’re building globally distributed networks, we’re building localized networks because of the limitations of language.” A Morgan Stanley chart showing cryptocurrency trading volume by the legal locations of exchanges reveals six of the top seven share English as an official language: Malta, Belize, Seychelles, the U.S., the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong. They also have the lion’s share of transactions. Look at the chart and you’ll see it: After the top seven, there’s a sharp drop-off followed by a disparate mix of mostly non-English speaking locations.

Not a Cure-All

As much as language divides these microcommunities, DePalma isn’t sure translation alone can bring them together: “Demirors’ idea that the problem is ‘lack of translation’ masks the real reason for blockchain’s slow growth in China [and elsewhere]: the lack of information in a form that potential users can understand,” he said.

“There’s isn’t a lot of communication between people building protocols and people building applications and using them,” Demirors said, and this creates what she calls a “fundamental gap” that makes crypto investment intimidating, even for native English speakers.

“I think most people when they’re engaging in their first-ever value transaction over blockchain are really nervous,” she explained. “I know the first time I spent more than $100 in bitcoin I checked the address like 30 times and I sweated bullets until those six confirmations [the number required for bitcoin] were done.”

Not having information, a wallet or an exchange in your language is just one more concern for potential buyers. As DePalma said, “Not understanding English at all raises the stakes. Blockchain is conceptually difficult enough that even having the information in your language might not be enough to fully grok its pros and cons.”

He adds that whether or not it’s due to the language barrier, buying a cryptocurrency “without understanding what it is you’re buying requires a leap of faith.”

Terena Bell
Terena Bell is an independent journalist covering tech, translation, and other topics for ThirtyK, The Atlantic, CIO, Fast Company, and others. Her work has won awards from the American Society for Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE).