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

The subtleties that distinguish "going global" terminology

Localization, globalization, internationalization: these all sound like similar concepts, and indeed many people often use them interchangeably. However, subtle distinctions set them apart. Understanding the differences is key for anyone tasked with helping a company "go global" —and ensuring their brand message resonates globally.

Researchers have created the acronym GILT (globalization, internationalization, localization and translation) to refer to the activities that businesses engage in when they expand beyond national borders, 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?

In this article, we'll explore the similarities and differences between globalization, internationalization and localization and flag some of the potential pain points associated with each.

What is Globalization?

Globalization refers to any activity that brings the people, cultures and economies of different countries closer together. In business, "globalization" refers to practices by which organizations become better connected to their customers around the world. This includes any aspect of operating in different national markets, from product design to marketing. 

Globalization Examples

If that’s still a bit vague for you, here are 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. 

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 global GDP from $89.6 trillion in 2010 to a projected $149 trillion in 2021. Globalization has come hand-in-hand with the most transformational advances of the 20th century, such as international air travel and the Internet. 

The rise of globalization also means that there has arguably never been a better time to build a business into a global company. There are a huge range of opportunities available to companies looking to expand, from access to a global talent pool to an increased volume of information that can be used to position a business. As it gets easier to enter new markets, there are also more product niches to take advantage of—and new customers to attract.  

However, to truly go global takes a lot of preparation. Two of the most important steps in this process are to localize and internationalize your product. While both localization and internationalization fall under the banner of globalization, there are some differences between the two. We’ll explore these further in the following sections. 

Man walking through street scene

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. This often requires the assistance of subject matter experts. Internationalization is sometimes shortened to "i18n", where 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 like 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?

Localization is the process of adapting a product to a specific target market. This usually happens after internationalization has taken place. Where internationalization develops a product that’s easy to adapt for many audiences in many different countries, localization takes that product and makes it highly relevant for one specific market. 

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?

In short, translation refers to the conversion of written text from one language to another, while localization is the process of making a product or message resonate with a specific target culture—as if it were created there in the first place. 

For most products, localization includes—but is not limited to—translation. There are many localization challenges. It requires consideration of multiple cultural 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 of the important considerations companies need to address when localizing a product:

  • Naming conventions, such as whether to put surname or forename first
  • Telephone number formats
  • Date and time formats, such as DD/MM/YYYY and MM/DD/YYYY
  • Currency, which would need converting into an appropriate value in the local currency
  • Writing direction, which is left to right for many languages, but right to left in Hebrew and Arabic, and vertical in some Asian languages
  • System of measurement, such as metric or imperial
  • Punctuation, such as quotation marks ("") in English, low quotes (,,") in German, and guillemets (<<>>) in French.
  • Symbols and pictograms, including check marks, stop signs and the use of color to convey information
  • Electrical voltagesfrequencies 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 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 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.

The Difference Between Globalization, Internationalization and Localization 

Globalization refers to the processes by which a company brings its business to the rest of the world.

Internationalization is the practice of designing products, services and internal operations to facilitate expansion into international markets.

Localization is 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 satisfy users of all regions, cultures and languages. 

Lionbridge has over two decades of experience in producing and adapting content for international audiences. Whether you’re looking to internationalize your product or localize your  website, our team of experts can help you develop a product and message that resonates around the world. Contact us to find out how we can help.

Alternatively, download our Buyer's Guide for Localization Services and find out how to choose the perfect partner for translation and interpretation services.

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