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International & multilingual web sites

Intended audience: anyone who is wondering about the difference between international and multilingual websites.

Updated 2004-04-30 14:25

Question

What is an "international" or a "multilingual" web site?

Background

“International” and “multilingual” are two words that are sometimes used interchangeably, but they can have very specific meanings when they pertain to web sites. It is important to clearly distinguish between these two concepts. Understanding the differences can help you more precisely plan and define requirements for a site. There are very specific requirements with respect to design, development, and deployment, and these requirements could call for different technical solutions.

Answer

Simply stated, an “international” web site is one that is intended for an international audience, and a “multilingual” web site refers to a web site that uses more than one language. An international web site may or may not be multilingual, just as a multilingual web site may or may not be international. For example, the W3C’s site is an international site because it is intended for an international audience. While this site is primarily written in English, there are some pages that contain other languages, thereby making the site multilingual as well.

The global home pages of many companies are often international in nature. Being intended for international audiences, they often ask the user to select a regional site. Such regional sites tend to be in a single language (usually the common language for the majority of the expected audience). The regional selection might direct the user to a sub-site within the same domain, or it might direct to a website in a different country. Regardless of the method, a good consistent design will make the user feel that it is still the part of the same site, and retain the feeling of an international site.

Multilingual sites can exist in different forms. A site might offer language selection and then present the content in only a single language at a time. A multilingual site might also mix multiple languages within the same page, either because the audience is believed to be multilingual, or because there might be a need for embedded foreign text. An online foreign dictionary is a common example of such a site.

Understanding the international and multilingual requirements for a site will help to determine and define the file structure of the site, the hardware and software requirements, the structure and markup of the content, and provide valuable input for designers to allow for possible scenarios in presentation. The site's navigation is also dependant on these requirements. International sites typically navigate users through country/region selections plus language, and multilingual sites may just involve language selection. Revising any of these later is a significantly greater challenge then allowing for the possibility of international and multilingual aspects from the beginning.

By the way

A multilingual site is concerned with more than just the language. There are many regional and cultural differences in the way that information is displayed. Some cultures use a comma as a thousands separator and a period as a decimal point, while other cultures use the period and comma, respectively. For example, 1.547 in one country and 1,547 in another country might actually be the same number. While the only difference in this example is a single character, the difference in meaning is significant.

The presentation of dates and times are a very typical example of something that causes confusion for the user. When using two digits each to represent year, month, and day, the actual date might not be obvious. A few examples from different cultures include DD/MM/YY, MM/DD/YY, and YY/MM/DD. A single date in the format “01/02/03” could be interpreted as three different dates.

There are many other concerns that should also be addressed when creating a multilingual site (such as punctuation, text that reads from right to left, displaying prices in multiple currencies). This is only a sampling of some of these.

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By: Phil Arko, Siemens.

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Content first published 2003-07-09. Last substantive update 2004-04-30 14:25 GMT. This version 2010-12-13 8:23 GMT

For the history of document changes, search for qa-international-multilingual in the i18n blog.