Localization, Globalization, Internationalization: What’s the Difference?

The subtleties that distinguish "going global" terminology

Last Updated: April 17, 2019 7:45AM

Today, the whole world rests literally at our fingertips. Using the smartphones in our pockets, we can contact people halfway around the globe in real-time, making new friends and practicing different languages. Immigrants and travelers cross borders in record numbers in search of new opportunities and experiences, and the Internet makes it easier than ever to exchange information and disseminate knowledge. The whole world has gone global.

Businesses across regions and industries keep the opportunities and challenges that accompany an increasingly interconnected world at the front of their proverbial minds. To refer to the activities that businesses engage in when they expand beyond national borders, researchers have created the acronym GILT (globalization, internationalization, localization, and translation). Of these terms, “translation,” which refers to the process of converting text from one language to another, is the most readily understood. But what distinguishes the other three?

Localization, globalization, and internationalization sound like similar concepts, and indeed many people often use them interchangeably. However, subtle differences set them apart, and differentiating them is key for anyone tasked with helping a company “go global.” Understanding the differences among these terms ensures that a brand’s message can resonate globally.

In this article, we’ll explore the similarities and differences among globalization, internationalization and localization, and how to address the pain points associated with each.

What Is Globalization?

If you’re looking for a clear, universally agreed-upon definition of globalization, you’ll probably be looking for a while. The term “globalization” refers to any activity that brings the people, cultures, and economies of different countries closer together.

In business, however, “globalization” (sometimes also called “going global”) refers to a series of practices by which organizations become more tightly connected with their customers and partners around the world.

Globalization: A Few Examples

Still a bit too vague for you? A few examples of globalization in the world of business:

  • Online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon make it easy to buy products from businesses or individuals on the other side of the planet. Even products sold in traditional brick-and-mortar stores like Target often make stops in several different countries before reaching their final destinations. Consumer electronics, for example, are commonly sourced from raw materials in India, made in China, then sold in America.
  • Many large restaurant chains, like McDonald’s, operate in dozens of countries. McDonald’s specifically has franchises in upwards of one hundred countries, and diners around the world recognize its brand and logo.
  • Netflix operates in more than 190 countries and customizes content offerings for individual markets with subtitles and programming in local languages.
  • The instantly recognizable “swoosh” logo of Nike transcends different cultures and languages. Nike has formed partnerships with athletes who play a variety of sports in many different countries and uses these endorsements to support its worldwide expansion.

As a general rule, the term “globalization” in business refers to any process or activity related to operating in different national markets, from product design to marketing.

There are many benefits of globalization for both companies and consumers. The impact of global inter-connectivity has been a boon for the world economy in recent decades and has increased the world’s GDP from $50 trillion in 2000 to $75 trillion in 2016. Globalization has come hand-in-hand with the most transformational advances of the 20th century, such as international air travel and the Internet.

The terms localization and internationalization both fall under the banner of globalization. In the next two sections, we’ll discuss the differences among globalization, localization, and internationalization.

What Is Internationalization?

Internationalization is a corporate strategy that involves making products and services as adaptable as possible, so they can easily enter different national markets. Internationalization often requires the assistance of subject-matter experts, technical experts, and people with international experience. Industry experts sometimes shorten the term “internationalization” to “i18n” (18 represents the number of characters in the word).

Products intended for use by speakers of multiple languages typically undergo an internationalization process. For example, IKEA internationalizes the assembly instructions for its furniture by using only diagrams and illustrations, without including any text that would need to be translated. Products with instructions that do require translation are still often written with the goal of being as culturally-neutral as possible. This, of course, is easier said than done.

In the case of software products and electronics, internationalization involves a number of different concerns:

  • Data encoding: The ASCII character encoding is sufficient for texts in most Western European languages. However, languages that use non-Latin alphabets (such as Russian, Chinese, Hindi, and Korean) require larger character encodings such as Unicode.
  • Hardware support: Software designers must consider that certain hardware devices may not be available in all countries.
  • User interface: If a software application will be translated into multiple languages, the user interface needs to include enough space for the text in all of these languages.

According to most definitions, companies must first internationalize before they can localize a product. In the next section, we’ll discuss the difference between internationalization and localization.

What Is Localization?

In order to define localization, we note again that through internationalization, a product becomes adaptable to and user-friendly for audiences in different countries. Localization, conversely, is the process of actually adapting that product to specific target markets once internationalization has taken place.

As mentioned, McDonald’s operates over 30,000 restaurants in 100 countries. Its worldwide expansion is an example of globalization. By design, the corporation creates a menu adaptable to various local tastes and customs. This policy is an example of internationalization.

Many of the McDonald’s restaurants in Israel serve kosher food and drink and close during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. McDonald’s has also opened a meat-free restaurant in India, a country in which much of the population does not eat beef or pork. In both cases, McDonald’s has maintained its global brand identity but tailored its products and services for local markets. These cases exemplify localization.

How Is Localization Different from Translation?

A great deal of localization, of course, has to do with language. Translation and localization are two intimately related concepts. For most products, localization includes—but is not limited to—translation. Localization requires consideration of multiple factors that transcend the words a company uses to describe or explain its product.

When creating its film Inside Out, for example, Pixar modified its animation to accommodate multiple versions of a scene where a character points to and reads a sign. In the Arabic version of the film, the character motions from right to left, rather than the left-to-right direction the animation takes in the English version of the film.

Here are just a few important considerations companies need to address when localizing a product:

  • Naming conventions (e.g., people from certain cultures may not have last names or may have multiple last names)
  • Telephone number formats
  • Date and time formats, such as DD/MM/YYYY and MM/DD/YYYY
  • Currency (symbol and amount)
  • Writing direction (left to right for most languages, but right to left in Hebrew and Arabic, and vertical in some Asian languages)
  • System of measurement, i.e., metric or imperial
  • Punctuation, such as quotation marks (“”) in English, low quotes („“) in German, and guillemets («») in French
  • Symbols and pictograms, e.g., check marks, stop signs, and the use of color to convey information
  • Electrical voltages, frequencies, and plugs
  • Legal requirements (such as the GDPR for the use of European Union citizens’ personal data)

Apple’s Siri virtual assistant represents a product that has been successfully localized. When users ask Siri for the weather report or directions to a specific address, Siri can provide the answer in Celsius or Fahrenheit, or kilometers or miles, respectively, depending on the user’s location. Users can even select their preferred accent for Siri’s voice (in English, the choices include American, Australian, and South African).

When building a website, developers should have a robust website localization strategy by addressing these concerns during the planning and design phases. Successful internationalization precedes commensurately successful localization.

For example, currencies such as the Chilean peso and the Japanese yen do not use subunits in practice, because each unit is so small (one U.S. dollar is equal to roughly 700 Chilean pesos). Therefore, e-commerce websites that Japanese developers design for a Japanese audience can use only a single-integer variable.

If the website expands to a U.S. audience, however, the developers will need to add another variable to store both units and subunits (i.e. dollars and cents) or convert the integer variable to a decimal. This process can become both time-consuming and bug-prone for highly complex code bases.

In Conclusion

Globalization, something of an umbrella term, encompasses both internationalization and localization. It refers to the process by which different pieces of the global economy are becoming connected, and the process by which companies bring their business to the rest of the world.

Internationalization is the practice of designing products and services, as well as structuring the internal operations of a company, in a way that facilitates expansion into international markets.

Localization refers to the adaptation of a particular product or service to one of those markets.

Whenever you anticipate expanding a product to multiple national or even regional markets, you need to consider internationalization and localization. Planning for these processes before the project begins will help you design products that include and satisfy users of all regions, cultures, and languages.

Getting important localization and internationalization right can be tricky. At Lionbridge, we’re passionate about producing and adapting content for international audiences. If you want your message to resonate around the world, contact us. We’d love to help.

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