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[w3c i18n] Q&A: International & multilingual web sites

From: Arko, Phil <phil.arko@scr.siemens.com>
Date: Mon, 30 Jun 2003 17:03:17 -0400
Message-ID: <20B20848358CDA44AB6A2E277D2E1C5E01866CA4@postoffice.scr.siemens.com>
To: "'public-i18n-geo@w3.org'" <public-i18n-geo@w3.org>

Question & Answer: International & multilingual web sites


What is an "international" or a "multilingual" website?


"International" and "multilingual" are two words that are sometimes used
interchangeably, but they can have very specific meanings when they pertain
to web sites. It is important to clearly distinguish between these two
words. Understanding the differences can help you more precisely plan and
define requirements for a site. There are very specific requirements with
respect to the design, development, and deployment, and they could call for
different technical solutions.


Simply stated, an "international" web site is one that is intended for an
international audience, and a "multilingual" web site refers to a web site
that uses more than one language. An international web site may or may not
be multilingual, just as a multilingual web site may or may not be
international. For example, the W3C's site is an international site because
it is intended for an international audience. While this site is primarily
written in English, there are some pages that contain other languages,
thereby making the site multilingual as well.

The global home pages of many companies are often international in nature.
Being intended for international audiences, they often ask the user to
select a regional site. Such pages tend to be in a single language (usually
the common language for the majority of the expected audience). The regional
selection might direct the user to a sub-site within the same domain, or it
might direct to a website in a different country. Regardless of the method,
a good consistent design will make the user feel that it is still the part
of the same site, and retain the feeling of an international site.

Multilingual sites can exist in several forms. A site might offer language
selection and then present the content in only a single language at a time.
The language selector itself can exist in one of two ways: each language can
be presented in the current language (such as "English, French, German" when
English is the current language) or in the respective language (such as
"English, Franšais, Deutsch"). 

A multilingual web page might also mix multiple languages within the same
page, either because the audience is believed to be multilingual, or because
there might be a need for a foreign word or phrase. An online foreign
dictionary is a common example of such a site.

Understanding the international and multilingual requirements for a site
will help to determine and define the file structure of the site, the
hardware and software requirements, the structure and markup of the content,
and provide valuable input for designers to allow for possible scenarios in
presentation. Revising any of these later is a significantly greater
challenge then allowing for the possibility of international and
multilingual aspects from the beginning.

By the way...

A multilingual site is concerned with more than just the language. There are
many regional and cultural differences in the way that information is
displayed. Some cultures use a comma as a thousands separator and a period
as a decimal point, while other cultures use the period and comma,
respectively. For example, 1,547 in one country and 1.547 in another country
might actually be the same number. While the only difference in this example
is a single character, the difference in meaning is significant.

The presentation of dates and times are a very typical example of something
that causes confusion for the user. When using two digits each to represent
year, month, and day, the actual date might not be obvious. A few examples
from different cultures include DD/MM/YY, MM/DD/YY, and YY/MM/DD. A single
date in the format "xx/xx/xx" could be interpreted as three different dates.

There are many other concerns that should also be addressed when creating a
multilingual site (such as punctuation, text that reads from right to left,
displaying prices in multiple currencies). This is only a sampling of some
of these.

Further information

Following are links to related W3C content:

Hints & Tips: Date & Time: [ <http://www.w3.org/International/O-time.html> ]
Hints & Tips: Language Tagging in HTML and XML: [
<http://www.w3.org/International/O-HTML-tags.html> ]
Questions & Answers: (X)HMTL & bidi formatting codes vs. markup: [
<http://www.w3.org/International/questions/qa-bidi-controls.html> ]
Questions & Answers: Multilingual Forms [
<http://www.w3.org/International/questions/qa-forms-utf-8.html> ]
Received on Monday, 30 June 2003 17:03:33 UTC

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