Internationalization (I18N): enabling access to a Web for All

Author(s) and publish date


Photo of flags of the world by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Last month, starting with my blog post on Web accessibility, I embarked on a series that puts the emphasis on the key areas that help ensure there is one Web for all humanity, and that it is safe for its users. There are four such areas that we call “horizontals” because they shape every W3C work package. They are Web accessibility, internationalization, security and privacy

In a sense “horizontals” are domains that provide continual work opportunities because the reason why they exist is continual. The Web Consortium, which was created at the end of 1994, launched in early 1997 the Web accessibility initiative and in 1998 the Internationalization activity, both domains have had a tremendous impact on the Web and continue to be more relevant than ever as W3C continues to scale and transform itself to meet the growing demands for a reliable Web. 

Without further ado, this month I am shining a light on Internationalization (I18N), which is designing and developing in a way that can be adapted for users from any culture, region, or language. This centers around “Web for all” because this is how people throughout the world use the Web in their own language and feel natural about it.

I18N is a design paradigm

The scope of Internationalization encompasses designing content, applications, technologies and specifications. Internationalization’s main audiences are respectively authors & content creators, web developers & web agencies, and standards development organizations like W3C through our working groups who write the standards that define the blueprints of the Web. 

At a high level the I18N design paradigm prompts several considerations when designing for the Web:

  • Ensuring your site or product supports text in any writing system of the world.
  • Considering text direction and the implications on the entire layout of your interface, not just the text flow.
  • Recognizing that names, addresses, time zones, dates and other information are often represented differently in different parts of the world.
  • Allowing for cultural norms: symbols, colors, and other elements you might take for granted in your culture could have very different meanings elsewhere.

I18N work at W3C

In order to enable all players in the Web ecosystem to accomplish all that, and for the Web itself to be designed to support the different aspects of languages and cultures so that sites and applications can be both international and localized, the W3C Internationalization initiative works with W3C work groups and liaises with other organizations. 

Language enablement is a major effort of our internationalization team who works extensively with experts in various parts of the world explaining requirements, documenting gaps between what is needed and what is currently supported in browsers and ebook readers, but also to define requirements and so forth to ensure the success of the mission.

Language enablement is the centerpiece of I18N

Three axes are critical to achieving progress in making the World Wide Web truly worldwide: Language enablement, developer support, education and outreach. Language enablement is the centerpiece of I18N because it gives foundation to the two other axes. 

Language enablement is a framework through which gaps are identified relating to how well languages or writing systems are supported on the Web. Gaps are then mapped out as areas to fix or typographic features to support so that more languages win more shares of the Web. Concretely, it ensures that all of the text layout and typographic needs of scripts and languages are built into technologies including HTML, CSS, SVG, EPUB. etc., so that web pages, ebooks, and other digital products can look and behave as needed for people around the world.

The imperative of Internationalization

The commercial benefits are indisputable. Making the Web or one’s website or digital product according to the principles of I18N (which is related to, but broader than, translations and localization) enables user engagement as well as more meaningful user interactions (data shows that 40% of users won’t interact with a site not in their language and that 76% of online shoppers prefer to buy products with information in their native language). The benefits are clear whether the goal is working in other countries or supporting people in your region that speak a different native language. In addition to local and global reach, corporate advantages include consistent branding, scalability, controlled maintenance costs, and legal compliance. 

The human benefits are immeasurable. I18N is the most inclusive approach to designing because it affords adaptation to cultural and locale-specific components and needs. Contextual relevance and fully-functional features are central to the imperative of Internationalization, as well as enabling more and more people to take part in the digital civil society.

Immense I18N scope = myriads ways to contribute

Whether one’s needs match a narrow or localized target or globalizing for the World-Wide Web, the good news is, W3C is working to ensure any audience can be supported, any customers, citizens, patients, etc. The scope is immense regardless of the target requirements of any given practical case. But by using the language enablement framework, gaps and needs are turned into a pipeline of individual work packages. 

However, this means that the work is far from being complete. While we’ve made great strides in supporting the languages of the world, there is more work to do and more opportunities for experts or interested parties to keep up with us at the project radar, or step up to participate and work through the issues.


Enabling access to a Web for All is central to W3C’s mission, and our Internationalization efforts help make this a reachable reality. 

I want to close this post by quoting Fuqiao Xue, who this year took over the role of Internationalization Lead from Richard Ishida who now focuses largely on the aspects of the work related to Language Enablement.

"Languages are more than just a means of communication. They are vessels of culture, carrying with them traditions, stories, knowledge, and ways of understanding the world that have been passed down through generations."
~ Fuqiao Xue, W3C Internationalization Lead

Related RSS feed

Comments (0)

Comments for this post are closed.