What is the difference between Localization, Globalization and Internationalization?


white airplane figurine against yellow background

For businesses, global expansion can be a complex and daunting task. There are many different factors to consider when deciding whether or not to go global. There are also three different terms that are often used interchangeably but have very different meanings: internationalization, localization, and globalization

In this blog post, we'll break down each of these terms and explain their differences. By understanding the distinctions between these concepts, you can better determine the tasks to tick off before making your product or service go global.

What is Internationalization?

yellow book entitled everyday english

Internationalization, also called i18n, means making products or services more adaptable and easier to localize. Internationalization is key to localization, especially in our broadly international and ever more connected world.

Internalization processes include: 

  • making illustrations for documents whereby text is easy to change to another language, 
  • creating space in user interfaces in case there is a need for more space during translation into another language
  • making website graphics and print such that their translation is not expensive
  • using examples with global meaning
  • using tools that can give support to international character sets
  • making sure that there is data space in software so that messages can be translated from a source language with single-byte character codes to the language of the target audience that uses multiple-byte character codes.

Note that internationalization doesn’t include an actual translation. Instead, it is a re-creation process. By internationalizing the source content, it will become standardized, streamlined, and more easily localized for each target market. This way, you can localize the content more quickly and efficiently than if you tried to localize it repeatedly for each specific target market.

Internationalization examples

Say that you have a new product you want to ship to an international audience. However, that audience speaks multiple languages and comes from many different cultures. You should internationalize the product’s content by eliminating any culturally specific references or slang terms. Why? Because these references might not have a perfect equivalent in the target language. As a result, they will require the translator to find a suitable alternative. But this boils down to subjective choice. 

For another example, let’s look at IKEA. Their products require individuals to read through a tutorial booklet to put the product together. Instead of translating the tutorial into dozens of other languages, IKEA internationalized it by replacing text instructions with diagrams.

What is Localization?

three people of different cultures sitting on a bench in gallery looking at a wall filled with black and white photos of people from all over the world

If internationalization is necessary to ensure your products or materials are not too specific to your context or culture, localization takes those products or materials and makes them appealing or understandable to your target context or culture.

Localization is the modification of a product or content to the language or other specifications of a particular locale. This can include converting currencies and units of measurement and changing the presentation of dates, phone numbers and addresses.

Localization can also involve alterations to graphical content. Most images are culture-specific and therefore need to be slightly altered (or wholly replaced) to seem natural to the intended viewer. 

The kind of clothing being worn by people in a stock photo, for instance, can immediately tie the content to a specific region of the world. Likewise, a color with positive connotations in one culture may carry negative connotations in a different one. Symbols and icons are another graphical element far from universal and may require replacement.

Localization also involves altering the text in a way that is not usually done in a standard translation. Two such examples are idiomatic expressions and proverbs. If not omitted from the source material from the start (via internationalization), they will require replacement by a comparable one from the target destination, assuming a suitable correlative exists.

In summary, localization, therefore, aims to give a product the feeling that it was produced solely for the target audience, irrespective of culture and language.

Localization Examples

You might decide to localize a marketing campaign. For instance, if you have a worldwide restaurant chain or food business, you may wish to change your marketing to Indian customers to accommodate their dietary preferences.

India has many more vegetarian citizens than the US. So when you market to an Indian audience for your foods, you’ll want to highlight your delicious vegetables, bread products, and other vegetarian and vegan offerings rather than displaying roast beef or steaks front and center.

How Are Localization and Internationalization Different?

two hands almost touching against contrasting background with l10n and i18n written next to them

Localization and internationalization are quite different from each other.

With internationalization, you re-create the source content into a simplified and streamlined format so it can be easily adapted to different target locales or audiences. In other words, internationalization is needed to prepare a product for localization.

Localization, meanwhile, means adapting a product, text, or other material for a specific audience or locale.

Put another way:

  • Internationalization prepares your products and materials for localization
  • Localization converts your content/product/service to appeal to the target culture

Let’s look at one final example to bring the concept together.

Let's say you run an online business selling products to customers around the world. You are about to release a new product with a tutorial guidebook and with lots of helpful text on the product’s box. However, your target audience is worldwide, not just people in the US.

First, you internationalize the content product and its text by:

  • Removing any cultural context or slang terms that those not from your culture may not understand
  • Ensuring the text can be easily translated into another language
  • Ensuring the product’s interface or controls can be used by anyone, and allow enough space for possible text expansion

Now it’s time to localize. You do this by:

  • Translating the text elements into the target language, including positioning them left to right or right to left as needed
  • Changing the interface, buttons, or controls of the product to better suit the needs or expected preferences of the target audience
  • Using localized slang terms or cultural concepts to ensure that your product connects with its target audience wherever it is sold

What is Globalization?

hands holding a collage of headshots of people the collage is cut in the form of a cloud

While globalization is related to internationalization and localization, it is a distinct activity.

Mostly, this process revolves around translating into the local language of any textual components that the user is likely to interact with, including menus, toolbars, and dialogue boxes. Globalization also involves the various ways in which onscreen text is to be sorted or displayed.

As such, globalization is more of an extension of internationalization. Rather than re-creating a software application from scratch to suit a target demographic or country’s audience, for instance, you’ll code the application so that its text can easily be replaced without affecting any underlying or core locale-specific components.

Proper globalization requires intense market research, both to identify global markets and to understand their attributes.

Globalization Examples

Globalization takes place both in the broad sense and for specific products. Here are some examples.

Large restaurant chains such as McDonald’s operate in dozens of different countries. However, McDonald’s has globalized much of its operations by ensuring that each store offers the same things and that each store is understandable and navigable by its customers regardless of their countries of origin.

Netflix is another stellar example. This streaming platform operates in well over 190 countries. It manages to customize its content streaming offerings by coding its interface in such a way that text or other materials are automatically translated depending on who accesses the system. But the underlying code and application are the same for everyone.

Final Considerations

choose your words spelled out with crossword blocks

Ultimately, it's not about whether you need to internationalize or localize. Both processes are a must-have. Failing to internationalize your material will cause your product's international launch to be lengthy and expenisive. Lacking a proper localization strategy may stop your products from being accessible or understandable by their target audiences.

Fortunately, you can rely on LingPerfect for expert consultation on your localization and internationalization strategy as needed. LingPerfect’s professional linguistic services could be just what you need to ensure your upcoming international marketing campaign or product launch is streamlined and cost-efficient. Reach out to our team of experts today to learn how we can help with your internationalization and localization strategy.

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