Internationalization vs Localization: What’s the Difference?

Localization strategy

You’ve had the idea of a lifetime: Software that will take the international market by storm. The gap in the market was right there, and no one else noticed. How exciting! Getting it off the ground in your home country may be fairly simple, but you don’t want to stop there—your app is just too […]
Localization strategy blog category featured image | Phrase

You’ve had the idea of a lifetime: Software that will take the international market by storm. The gap in the market was right there, and no one else noticed. How exciting!

Getting it off the ground in your home country may be fairly simple, but you don’t want to stop there—your app is just too good for that, which is why it’s going global right from the get-go.

Language and cultural barriers shouldn’t be the reason people can’t enjoy your app. Especially with its potential to positively impact millions of lives across the globe.

So you’ve started researching how to take your app global and stumbled on terms like "internationalization" and "localization" but can’t differentiate between them.

Fear not: In this guide, you’ll learn what both terms mean, the difference between internationalization vs localization, and why you shouldn’t use them synonymously.

What’s the difference between internationalization and localization?

Internationalization is the process of designing software that is adaptable to different cultures and languages.

The goal of internationalization is to ensure that the design and development of a software product allow it to support multiple languages, regional preferences, and cultural norms without having to make significant code changes.

Internationalization is sometimes abbreviated as i18n, where the 18 stands for the number of letters between the beginning "i" and the last "n".

Localization, on the other hand, is the actual process of adapting a previously internationalized product to a certain culture. The ultimate goal is to have an end product that feels local to the target market (or, in technical terms, the target "locale"). The abbreviation for localization is l10n, where 10 stands for the number of letters between the "i" and the "n".

What it means to internationalize software

In design, for example, the internationalization principle manifests itself in the modular design approach. Modularity means building something out of smaller, individual parts, or modules, and combining them into a finished object. A day-to-day example of this would be a screwdriver set with interchangeable bits—it is, by design, internationalized.

This stands in stark contrast with making a single fixed object, like a regular screwdriver with a fixed head and size. Just like a flat-head Phillips screwdriver with a wedge-shaped flat tip does great on screws that have a straight, linear notch in their heads, software that hasn’t been internationalized can only support one language and culture.

Sure, it should do a fantastic job in the culture it has been designed in—however, if the market you're trying to expand to has different cultural norms, you're in trouble. It would be like trying to use your flat-head Phillips screwdriver for a screw with a cross-shaped notch in its head: It’ll take a whole lot of work to make that work.

A real-life example of software internationalization

Okay, now that the theory is out of the way, let’s take a look at what exactly good internationalization is and what it would look like in practice. An important facet of internationalization is making sure that your software is adaptable to cultural preferences.

Take a look at the English and Japanese versions of Sony's website. While there are a lot of differences, the relevant point here is the layout: The .jp-version is a lot denser than the .com-version of the site. That comes down to different expectations and user preferences. One way to meet this need is by separating your UI elements from your source code. Why?

With separate UI elements, a layout change like this becomes much easier than if you stored everything together. Without separation, you might as well create a different site for each locale. Godspeed to any brave soul that would attempt such an undertaking with 190 countries and roughly 6.500 languages on this planet!

What it means to localize software

Localization is similar to choosing the right screw bit. And if a craftsman could choose one superpower, being able to guess the right-sized screw bit would be one they’d likely consider.

Being foreign to a market and taking things like numbers, concepts, and even time itself for granted will set you up for failure. That’s right: Localization is not only about translating the textual content of your software.

Localization consists of many different aspects:

  • Making sure that your application’s content fits the cultural tastes and usage habits of the target market
  • Using the right number conventions and currencies
  • Meeting local legal requirements
  • Formatting dates, addresses, and phone numbers to meet local conventions
  • Fitting your UI to the translated text—different languages have different space requirements
  • Checking for graphics that may be viewed as insensitive or that can be misinterpreted in certain cultures
  • Color-coding your app in ways that fit your locale

A real-life example of localization

When the time comes to localize the software that you’ve previously internationalized, things can start to get a bit tricky. That’s why onboarding a professional, dedicated localization manager with target-culture experience is a good idea. Even a big player like Procter and Gamble had to learn this the hard way.

When trying to break into the Japanese market with Pampers, the company used storks on their packages—to the bewilderment of Japanese customers. Unlike western countries, the Japanese believe that babies are brought in from the ocean by floating peaches, not storks. Customers had a hard time figuring out what these Pampers products actually were and consequently were not buying them.

By making your research and properly localizing your app, you can avoid a costly blunder like the one Proctor and Gamble made. Centralizing localization under one department that collaborates continuously with your Product and Marketing teams can ensure cross-team alignment so that localization and internationalization efforts are better connected.

Internationalization vs localization: It’s crucial to differentiate between both

You finally have your app cut and dried, and you can now differentiate between internationalization and localization. It almost sounds like the world is your oyster, but hold on just a minute—there’s still a lot to explore. Again, we’ve got you covered. Check out these guides to make the best of your global software: