Lost in Localization

Localizing applications to a person’s native language is a great idea, there’s no disputing that but a common mistake, one that I think will happen more and more unfortunately, is a company making the assumption that because someone is in County “X” they will also speak the native tongue of that country.

I came across this post on the “webreakstuff.com” blog. It’s a pretty good look at few of Google’s missteps when it comes to localizing their interfaces. Primarily the fact that they first start off by localizing the site to the native language of the country that you’re viewing the site from. Now in their defence they did provide the opportunity to specify another language if you can’t read the native language.

The problem? The menu item is in the native langauge, so to change the language you need to be able to read the native one (Strike Two). Then, if you can manage to find the right drop-down you’ll be surprised to find that all of the language names have also been translated. Three Strikes. Out.

Although – it’s a strange challenge to try to overcome. How do you indicate the language drop down? What language do you put it in? I’d suggest the best approach would be a universal icon that represents “Languages” somehow. It’s a lofty suggestion but I think one that’s ripe for the right person to come along and design – look at how well the “XML” orange box took off. Any takers?

As for the translated drop-down menu – I’m not sure what they were thinking there. It’s pretty standard practice to list the language names in their native language (i.e. English, Français, 简体中文, Español, Deutsch, 日本語)

In the end I think it’s a major error to assume that a country neccessarily = a language. It’s about the same as using flags to indicate language, a topic I talked about here previously.

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  • Norbert Lindenberg

    Japanese uses the traditional Chinese character for language: 日本語. The character used above, 语, is simplified and used in China, but then the Chinese word for Japanese is 日语.

  • Ryan

    Thanks Norbert. If I understand you correctly are saying is I’ve inadvertantly posted Chinese characters for the Japanese language link?

  • Norbert Lindenberg

    They’re all Chinese characters – remember, the Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters (kanji), two native syllabaries (hiragana and katakana), as well as Latin characters (romaji). But then, many Chinese characters have separate traditional and simplified forms. In this case, the character for language can be the traditional 語 or the simplified 语. Generally, China and Singapore use the simplified forms, Taiwan and Hong Kong the traditional ones. Japan mostly uses traditional forms, but for some characters has adopted the simplified Chinese form and for some others created its own simplified form. For the character for language, Japan uses the traditional form, so the Japanese word for Japanese is 日本語. Japanese users are unlikely to recognize 日本语.

  • Ryan

    Ah, interesting. Thanks for taking the time to clarify this.