The Ultimate Linguistic Guide to Software Localization for Developers

The Ultimate Linguistic Guide to Software Localization for Developers

In this comprehensive guide to software localisation, we look at the impact of l10n on your UX design and writing process.

There are lots of great guides out there for how to prep your product for internationalization and localization from an engineering perspective. Building software localization into your product right from the start — even if you’re not ready to expand beyond one locale just yet — saves you a tonne of work and headaches down the line.

The effects of software localization cascade down to every aspect of development and post-development, from UX and interface design to the basic engineering and core functionality of your product, and to documentation, support, and marketing. With this in mind, getting a good grounding in the repercussions that designing for different locales has for the development process is a great idea for any software developer.

We’ll start by explaining some basic concepts. Then we’ll look at examples of strings from different languages and explore the requirements that different locales have. Throughout this post, we’ll refer to our fictional app “SuperApp” in our examples.

Locales vs. language variants

It might be helpful to start by looking at what we mean by a locale. This is a term used both in the tech and translation industries to refer to a country-specific variant of a language. If you’re not from a multilingual background, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s sufficient to think about languages, such as English, Spanish and Swedish. If we want to make SuperApp available in one of these languages, surely it’s enough to translate the strings and be done with it?

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The thing is, “language” is a fuzzy term, and nowhere near granular enough for our needs. Let’s start with English. It’s spoken natively by over 400 million people and is an official language in 55 sovereign states — a group of countries commonly referred to as the Anglosphere. The language isn’t uniform across the Anglosphere: there are dozens of national varieties, each with their own conventions for things like pronunciation, grammar and spelling standards, and even how dates and numbers are formatted.

You’re more than likely already familiar with the two biggest varieties: British English and American English. These national standards can be expressed with the IETF language tags en-GB and en-USrespectively. The story is similar (albeit on a much smaller scale) for languages like Swedish ­– which is an official language in both Sweden (se‑SV) and Finland (se‑FI).

But is this a locale? Well not quite. The tags above refer to the language variant only and do not include the user’s selected region settings. Region settings affect things such as how the date and time is expressed (e.g. ’31 December’ being written as 31/12 or 12/31, and whether to use 12- or 24-hour clock by default), how numbers are formatted (e.g. using a dot or a comma as the decimal separator) and where currency symbols are placed (e.g. before or after the amount, with or without a space). If we bundle these region settings up with the language variety, then we get our locale.

software-development ux translation translation-services localization

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