TIP: Developing Multilingual Applications

Creating monolingual applications – those which run in only a single language – can be very limiting. If your application is only available in English, you’re likely to be missing out on growing and lucrative foreign markets. Although users from abroad may use your application, they are far more likely to be interested in it and to interact with it if it’s in their own language. Research confirms that people naturally gravitate towards their native language online.

Internationalization is the process of developing a web application for use in a range of different countries without further changes to the platform, while localization means adapting a web application for a specific market, translating the text and taking into consideration every component of the app. This is a two-step process, because internationalization is a precursor of localization.

Typically, internationalized applications are developed in one language – English, for example – and then localized versions of the application are developed after that for each target market. In effect, this means creating multiple versions of an application, with a separate version for English, French, German, Spanish, etc.

However, it can save a lot of time and money to create a multilingual application in the first place. This means that key decisions need to be made in the design phase. The failure to do this properly can make it much harder to retrospectively make the application multilingual.


A multilingual application is one that can run in several different languages. As well as the content being in a certain language, multilingual applications can also accept information in that language. While most software is in English, the biggest IT and software development companies also tend to localize their products, especially for Germany, France, Spain and Asian countries.

Usually, the way these multilingual applications work is that the user chooses the language they want to work in at the very start of their interaction with the app. Once they’ve selected their chosen language, all the screens after that will automatically appear in that language. In some cases, the language required can be detected by the device and switched automatically. How the language is selected is one of the first decisions you need to make.


There are several other important design issues to bear in mind when creating a multilingual app. For example, you can create a multilingual app, which has one screen that is localized for each language, or you can create a separate window screen for each language from the start.

The amount of space you’ll need on screen for the text will depend on the language. For example, a sentence in German is typically 30 percent longer than the equivalent in English. This means that if you choose a single localized screen approach, it will need to be big enough to accommodate the longest possible translation. If you choose the multiple screen approach, your screens are likely to be better designed, as each will be laid out with the target language in mind. However, you need to bear in mind that any changes you make to the app would then have to be repeated across all of the language screens.

Your design will need to be flexible enough throughout to take language variations into account. For example, you’ll need to pay attention to the amount of space that’s available in pre-set areas such as text boxes and navigation menus.


Of course, all the text within your app will need to be translated by a professional translator. This includes all the input and display text, the online help files and all product documentation. Using a dictionary or online translation software is not recommended, even for one-word menu items, as you can easily use a word in the wrong context without the assistance of a native speaker who understands the local language quirks and colloquialisms.

Imagery and Formats

You’ll also need to think about the visual icons and imagery that you use, and aim for globally accepted and neutral symbols. For example, an envelope or a telephone are globally recognized as contact symbols. However, hands, for example, can mean different things in different cultures and you could risk offending some people if you don’t get advice on what is and is not appropriate. Bear in mind how information such as dates and currencies will display. In the UK, the date is written day/month/year, for example, but in the US it tends to be written month/day/year.

The design stage of a multilingual application is also the perfect time to consider other accessibility issues, such as whether the app is accessible to deaf and blind people and how you could build these considerations into the design. The earliest stage of design is the ideal time to look at exactly who will be the target audience for the app, so you can design an internationalized app that can then be localized for different countries and languages with far less hassle.

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