What is internationalization – and why your business needs it from day 1

There are so many terms in the realm of linguistics and localization that it's easy to get confused as to when to use which. Translate texts, but transcreate ad copy. Pick the right localization strategies for your product, but think about internationalization prior to that to get the best results. 

It might sound like a riddle at first, but we promise – it's not complicated at all, and there's meaning behind each one of those words. In our previous articles, we've already covered what localization is and what localization services we provide here at Language Inspired. You've probably also learned all things transcreation and how it matters if you want to create an authentic experience for your audience no matter their location. 

Now, it's time to deep-dive into internationalization – a term that seems self-explanatory considering its etymology, but which is so important if you want your business to prepare for growth globally. Let's get right into it! 

Definition of internationalization

Internationalization, also called i18n (for the number of characters between letters “i” and “n”), is the approach to designing and developing products, applications, or content in a way that enables easier localization. 

Say, for example, that you were to create a business according to the best practices of internationalization. This would mean that you'd build your product or service as adaptable as possible so that in the future, it can easily enter markets in other countries. 

Sounds an awful lot like localization itself? It might, but they're definitely not synonyms. So what are the key differences when comparing internationalization vs. localization? 

While the processes are not identical, they do go hand in hand, complementing each other. In a way, internationalization is like a pre-preparation stage before getting into localization. For example, internationalization is sometimes called translation or localization enablement as it makes the two processes easier to implement in the later stages. 

It is also essential to remember that internationalization is not just a vision or concept. Internationalization means taking actual practical steps and includes practices like:  

  • Planning extra space in the user interface right from the get-go to allow easier translation into languages that require more characters

  • Developing using products that support international character sets

  • Using text examples with global meaning

  • In software development, ensuring enough data space so that messages can be translated from languages with single-byte character codes into languages requiring multiple-byte character codes

To sum up, here are the two definitions side by side: 

  • What is internationalization? Internationalization means designing and developing products or services in a way that makes localization easier in the future. 

  • What is localization? Localization is the actual adaption of your product, service, content, or any documents for new languages. This usually happens after internationalization. 

The benefits of internationalization 

Simply put, implementing an internationalization strategy right from the start of your business journey enables easy localization for target audiences later on. There are several long and short-term benefits, including: 

  • Internationalization identifies possible issues. Be it legal, technical, or any other roadblocks, internationalization allows seeing several steps ahead in your global business development. In the tech world, software internationalization is an especially important step. For example, consider data encoding. Using the ASCII character encoding is enough for most Western European languages. But if you plan to localize to non-Latin alphabets (Russian, Hindi, Chinese, and others), your website should be coded in Unicode, which covers most languages. 

  • Internationalization helps save costs. This is probably one of the most appealing benefits of internationalization. Yes, creating an internationalization strategy is an investment at first. But by anticipating and addressing future issues like bug fixing, reformatting, and restructuring, you avoid dealing with costly last-minute changes during the localization stage.

  • Internationalization saves time. It lays the groundwork for localization so when you want to enter new markets, you don't have to start from scratch, reducing time-to-market and helping your business be more agile and gain an advantage against competitors. 

Actions speak louder than words, so here are a couple of other real-life examples. Consider the button “Log in”. While in English, it consists of only 6 characters, in Finnish, the button would turn into “Kirjaudu sisään” – a whopping 15 characters. To avoid extra work and expenses, the button has to be responsive from the very start so that it can adapt to different text lengths. 

In addition, not all languages read from left to right. If you plan to localize content into Arabic or Hebrew, which goes from right to left, your design must have the flexibility to accommodate these variations.

These are straightforward examples emphasizing the importance of website internationalization from day one. With internationalization in place, it is much easier, quicker, and cost-effective to localize. 

Where to get started? 

There you have it – you are now familiar with the i18n meaning and why internationalization matters. We've even covered the localization definition and all the key differences when comparing localization vs. internationalization. 

If you strive for international growth, we suggest looking at internationalization as a much-recommended pre-preparation stage before localization. We'd be happy to consult your organization on how to approach internationalization – and when you're ready for the next step, be the experienced and trusted partner on your localization journey. 

Here at Languages Inspired, we prepare businesses for global growth, be it in the form of localization, translation, or transcreation. Get in touch with us to see what the best approach for your business could be.

On the 19.04.2023. SIA “Language Inspired” has signed an agreement Nr. SKV-L2023/208 with Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA) within the project “International competitiveness promotion”, which is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.

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