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What is Internationalization?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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The term internationalization applies to making computer software and hardware compatible with diverse languages. Since not all languages use the same alphabet, one goal is to get a standard English-based keyboard to apply to different alphabets. Anther concern is addressing different symbols that may be present in languages other than English, such as accented letters. Additionally, internationalization addresses the way a language scripts, which may differ significantly from English.

When internationalization is applied to languages that use different alphabets, keys are coded to replace standard English alphabets. Alphabets vary in length, and certain keys may need to be omitted to exactly replicate the alphabets of other languages. Keyboards may also be localized to a specific culture to address significant differences in alphabets. Localization describes the attempts on the part of the software or hardware manufacturer to adapt items like keyboards to a specific market. For example, an Arabic keyboard or a Russian keyboard would need to be localized to sell well in an Arab or Russian market.

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In some cases, internationalization does not need to localize products, as alphabets are similar enough to use the QWERTYUIOP form of the keyboard. Often, programs like Microsoft Word have built in short cuts to symbols that differ from English. Letters with accents can generally be added by using the Insert menu to insert accented letters. This is a bit more time-consuming than simply typing a word with an accent, but cutting and pasting or building shortcuts to accents can be easily accomplished and generally does not require additional software.

Internationalization also includes translating units of measure. For example, wiseGEEK, to accommodate American, British and other English speaking audiences, uses two forms of measurement. We use both the US customary unit of measurement - ounces, inches, or pounds - and the metric measurement - grams, centimeters, or kilograms. This form of internationalization improves communication regarding information about size or weight. In some cases, as in most medical and scientific language, we rely more on the metric system because science has universally adopted this form.

Internationalization of measurements is made significantly easier by many free software programs that convert measurements quickly. Similar programs exist to address differences such as currency values. Internationalization in discussing currency is vital, and also a bit difficult. Currency values change quickly, so programs that convert currency must be aware of world markets. Current information is best obtained from sources on the Internet, and currency calculators make converting dollar to euro or yen far simpler.

Internationalization must also address the way a language scripts. Is it read horizontally or vertically? Does one read from left to right or from right to left? Programs that address alphabetic changes may also address scripting differences, particularly when hardware or software is localized.

One easy method of internationalization is to use translation software, often available at no cost on the Internet. One can type in a phrase in English and translate to virtually any language. Caution should be used with this method if one is not fluent in the language to which he or she is translating. Errors are common, particularly when using idiomatic expressions, and can often result in poor communication.

Internationalization has globalization as its goal. The Internet has given all its users the ability to speak or write to people from vastly different cultures and language backgrounds. With most internationalization software free or inexpensive, the goal of globalization may ultimately promote a true “global community,” one that supersedes the concept of state or country and focuses on the unity of the world’s population.

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