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:

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.


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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. 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:

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 头脑特工队, for example, Pixar modified its animation to accommodate multiple versions of a scene. 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:

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.