Developing Multilingual Web Apps

June 13, 2012 1 Comment »
Developing Multilingual Web Apps

Apps have transformed the way people use software to process information and manage data over the last few years. App entrepreneurs have been making the most of their flexibility to engage with users in key global markets. If you are keen to join them, it could be time to consider developing multilingual apps.

Why Multilingual Matters for Apps

The web population is becoming increasingly diverse and multilingual. According to Internet World Stats, while the number of Internet users in North America has increased by 152.6% between 2000 and 2011, it is up by 376.4% in Europe, 789.6% in Asia and 2,244.8% in the Middle East. Regions with historically low Internet penetration—for example, Africa—are seeing some of the steepest growth rates.

As more of the world gets connected, the proportion of English speakers is falling and is now only around a quarter. Clearly, a monolingual approach to application development can be severely limiting. Translating your apps allows you to massively increase your potential market. Several studies have shown that people prefer using the Internet in their native language, even if they speak some English. This allows them to focus on the task in hand without being distracted by language issues.

Internationalization and Localization

Internationalization of software takes place at the design and development stage, and it ensures that the software can be used in different regions of the world and by speakers of other languages. Each text string exists as a separate entity in the database, meaning new translations can easily be added as required. Typically, the user interface will allow the user to select his or her own language.

Localizing software involves creating a language-specific version of the application for a particular regional market. The master version (normally in English) will be converted to suit the intended locale, paying attention not only to language but also cultural differences. In addition to translating words, the process includes ensuring that units and formats are appropriate for the target market, in addition to using the right character sets and fonts. Regional differences in legal and financial matters may also be taken into account at this stage.

Although most of the large IT and software development companies develop their initial products in English, they also localize these products for release in key non-English regions, which normally include major western European countries and Asian markets.

Translating Textual Information

Although translation, as noted above, is only one part of localizing software for key global markets, it is essential to getting the job done right. The best translators will be native speakers of the target language with experience in technical writing.

Remember to account for all textual information when beginning the translation process. The user interface is an obvious place to start, but you will also need to include all product documentation. If the application links to online help pages or other web-based information, they should be translated too.

Getting the Visuals Right

Icons and symbols play an important role in the way users interact with software. One can be tempted to think of them as truly international—after all, they offer wordless interaction that transcends written language. Or so many of us assume. Bear in mind, though, that most icons and images have been created by English speakers on the basis of their own linguistic and cultural knowledge.

For instance, hand gestures represent one potential cultural pitfall. The thumbs up that is frequently used to reassure software users is in fact offensive in many parts of the world.

Where letters are included in an icon, these too may be less than clear to speakers of other languages. Think, for example, of the ABC of a spell-checker or the letter ‘i’ for information. Also ensure any user icons that resemble people are culturally appropriate. Watch out too for symbols that have religious or political significance.

Make Flexible Design a Priority

Re-engineering software is rarely desirable. You can minimize the need for re-engineering by employing a flexible design that accounts for localized versions.

For example, your user interface may look sleek and professional when presented in tandem with English text, but how will it cope with a language such as German that typically uses much longer words? Be prepared to make allowances at the design stage so that captions don’t run over their allotted space. If you’re in doubt as to how your application will work with a particular language, consult with native speakers at this stage to potentially gain valuable insights that will help save time and effort later on.

Being able to reach a global audience with your web apps is an opportunity few would want to miss. Consider other languages and cultures at the outset, and you have a far better chance of your applications having worldwide appeal.

About The Author

Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, one of the world’s fastest-growing translation companies. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 170 employees spanning three continents, as well as clients in over 60 countries. In the past 12 months, the company has translated over 40 million words for businesses in every industry sector, including the likes of MTV, World Bank and American Express. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter: @Lingo24.

Photo courtesy of quinn.anya

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