Understanding the Difference: Localization vs Internationalization

i18n vs l10n

If you’re aiming to expand your software business globally, understanding the difference between internationalization and localization is crucial. These practices, when combined with advanced i18n tools, translation management systems and machine translation, enable the development of software and applications that seamlessly adapt to various languages and cultural norms. 

Let’s discover the difference between localization vs internationalization and the unique roles they play  in software development.

What is Localization or L10n? 

Localization, also known as L10n, involves adapting a software application, website, or product to meet the language, cultural norms, and functional expectations of a specific target market or locale. This process is crucial for ensuring that content connects meaningfully with users worldwide and addresses local preferences.

When we talk about localization, we mean several aspects of adapting content:

  • Language: Moving content from a source to a target language
  • Tone and Message: Adapting to what will engage the audience, whether it’s persuasion or education.
  • Imagery and Color: Ensuring visual elements are culturally suitable, as symbols can have different meanings across cultures.
  • Formats: Adjusting date, time, measurements, and numbers to local standards.
  • User Interface: Adapting navigation and layout to align with linguistic and cultural expectations, including changes for languages written from right-to-left.
  • Payment Methods: Including local currency and preferred payment options to facilitate e-commerce.

By covering all these aspects, localization ensures content is not only linguistically but also culturally relevant to the target audience.

It’s important to think of continuous localization if you localize software. This process integrates with agile software development methodologies, allowing for real-time translation of new and updated content, automated workflows, and seamless collaboration between localization and development teams. With this approach you ensure that content is always up-to-date, time to market is faster, localization costs lower, and user experience is better.

What is Internationalization or i18n? 

Internationalization, commonly abbreviated as i18n, is a foundational step in creating software applications that resonate globally. It involves designing and developing the software in a way that makes it adaptable to various languages and regions without requiring engineering changes. 

Internationalization greatly simplifies the process of localizing a product. Designing a product from the start with the global market in mind is far less difficult and time-consuming than retrofitting a product initially focused on specific linguistic and cultural norms. Consider the challenges of the Y2K effort, where developers had to rework systems built with the two-character year fields under the “19xx” assumption.

Key aspects of i18n are: 

  • Building an architecture that supports multiple languages, accommodates text direction variations, and handles diverse date, time, number and multiple locale-specific formats.
  • Separate user-facing content from the code base, enhancing adaptability and ease of updates for different languages and cultures.
  • Utilizing Unicode for robust multilingual character encoding.
  • Managing plural forms, gender and adjusting for text expansion to ensure the software is intuitive in various languages.

Localization vs Internationalization: What Is The Difference?

Taking into account what we learn so far, let’s summarise: 

Localization refers to the adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market (a locale).Internationalization is the design and development of a product, application or document content that enables easy localization for target audiences that vary in culture, region, or language.

Source: w3.org

To put very shortly the difference between them:

  • Internationalization adapts the code. 
  • Localization adapts the experience. 

However, when we speak about l10n and i18n we cannot skip mentioning a common abbreviation GILT which is a key terminology of the language sector when it comes to international expansion. We already know the “I” and “L”, but there are 2 more: Globalization which adapts the framework, and Translation which adapts the message. 

Common Challenges When Bridging i18n and L10n

Lack of clear roles and responsibilities

Effective teamwork is essential for successful i18n implementation. You should clearly define roles and responsibilities to avoid costly rework and ensure a smoother localization process as the product evolves. Building this teamwork might not be easy, as it involves coordinating people with different backgrounds—linguists (translators, localization managers) and technical staff (engineers, developers). 

Here are several pieces of advice from Loy Searle, Sr Director Localization & Globalization at Workday, from a webinar  “Building a Globalization Mindset with Development Teams”.

  1. Start localization education with those who are most engaged. The Workday localization team began by collaborating with product teams eager to go global, creating a dedicated Slack channel to build a community. This strategy established a precedent, leveraging this success to motivate other teams.
  2. Create Internationalization resources & trainings: To ensure information is easily accessible and utilized from the start, they established standards and ensured that all new hires, especially engineers, received internationalization training. This approach established a more standardized process for product localization.
  3. Provide constant support: The localization team offered varying levels of support depending on the product’s lifecycle and the team’s familiarity with internationalization practices. For new products, particularly acquisitions, they conducted extensive i18n assessments and prioritized customer-facing UI elements.

Flexible technologies that can be integrated with the code reps

Another headache for a localization manager is gaining access to the files that need to be translated. Developers generally dislike external interference with their code repositories and are often reluctant to spend time extracting strings for translations. Therefore, finding tools that can continuously integrate with repositories and development efforts and automate the entire process—so that developers do not need to manually handle files for localization—is crucial. Most translation management systems have limited capabilities to work effectively with code, but tools like Localyzer are designed specifically for this purpose. 

Localyzer can serve as an add-on to your TMS, language provider, or machine translation engine extracting code strings right from the repos (GutHub, GitLab, BitBucket, SVN, TFS, etc) sending them to your provider for translation and getting it back right in the code. Files are validated/checked for errors both from and back into the repository, so that issues that can impact or break the code are eliminated. localization teams can choose to send entire files or just the changes, to minimize localization costs.

 i18n bugs debt that needs to be overcome 

When you start internationalizing existing software, one of the biggest challenges you will face is auditing and reengineering existing web pages, apps, and content. If you’re new to i18n, this can be an especially daunting challenge that may be difficult to overcome as product development and global releases do not stop. To address this challenge, you might need to expand your team to include i18n experts. Additionally, using Globalyzer helps developers support i18n for ongoing development, as well as refactoring i18n bugs and issues.

Conclusion:

In summary, while internationalization prepares your software architecture for global markets, localization tailors your product to meet the specific needs of each locale. Remember, internationalization and localization are smart investments. The initial cost pays off as you expand your product into more languages and cultures, increasing the return on investment significantly.

Explore how our products and services can empower your global expansion.

Author

Picture of Kate Vostokova
Kate Vostokova
Kate is a seasoned B2B content marketing manager with a five-year journey in the localization industry. She is passionate about crafting various types of content to educate people about internationalization (i18n), localization, and the latest technological advances, including Large Language Models (LLMs).
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