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Monolingual vs. multilingual Web sites

Intended audience: anyone who is wondering about the difference between monolingual and multilingual sites.

Question

What are the trade-offs between international sites that are monolingual vs. multilingual?

Answer

An international Web site is one that presents information to an international audience. In addition to deciding between a monolingual vs. multilingual approach, you will also need to consider whether to change the content for your international readers.

The approach you take will depend on:

You should also consider:

Only you can decide which is the right approach for your circumstances. But you should do so after considering some of the ideas below.

Monolingual, same content

Web sites that present the same monolingual content to an international audience may be acceptable for a technical community with an agreed standard language. However it might still be useful to translate some types of information, such as tutorial and introductory text.

On the other hand, a single language, same content Web site facing customers or general readers runs the risk of alienating those people, either because they don't understand the information, because they don't feel comfortable with the cultural approach, or because it lacks relevance.

Monolingual sites may be developed using a simple version of English (or whatever the base language is), and may be checked for potentially troublesome cultural references. On the one hand, this removes some of the risk of alienation and appeals as a relatively low cost approach to internationalization; but on the other, it may lead to a cultural blandness that reduces the impact on and the attractiveness to the reader. This approach will be particularly problematic if you are attempting to sell to, persuade, or entertain the reader, or even educate in an engaging way.

Monolingual, changed content

Some international sites, while remaining monolingual, may attempt to vary content for the local reader to increase impact and relevance. For example, it may be important to tailor information to suit the different buying habits, prices, legal requirements, or other varying social conditions of the international audience.

This is somewhat more costly and complex to manage, but may pay dividends in terms of user responsiveness. It still scores low, however, in terms of general accessibility.

Multilingual, same content

Sites that provide multilingual content address understandability, but not necessarily cultural differences or relevance.

Some multilingual sites are purely a translation of the original web site. This helps users understand material better, but may still lack sufficient impact and relevance for the local reader.

Multilingual, changed content

Translation alone may be appropriate for technically oriented sites such as the W3C site, but if your site, or a part of your site, is attempting to persuade the reader to do or buy something the ideal is to have multilingual sites that are also adapted to the reader's local culture and interests. Content adaptation also increases relevance.

This latter approach, however, brings into sharp focus the balance between desired impact on the reader and the costs and complexity of implementation.

By the way

The W3C accepts translations of its specifications and web pages provided by volunteers. Information is currently available in over 50 languages and over 12 different scripts. The data is generated from RDF, and documents are grouped both by language or by document. For more information see the Translation page.

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By: Richard Ishida, W3C.

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Content first published 2003-08-12. Last substantive update 2004-04-30 14:55 GMT. This version 2010-08-19 17:58 GMT

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