Multilingual Web (#1): The Mirage of a Lingua Franca

Design and code techniques for international websites

“Assorted-country flag on gray stones under white clouds at daytime” by Ken Treloar on Unsplash


In the mid ’90s, language authority such as David Crystal¹ has predicted that English will become a global and universal way of communication around the world in the future (it. lingua franca). The popularity of English in contemporary media, science and culture had to be reflected also in the not-so-known then the Internet. The beginnings of the WWW standard, rooted in American science, seemed to confirm such theses. However, currently observed trend appears to be reversed — the share of English-speaking users is decreasing and is estimated at around 25%.

English is the global language
 — David Crystal, 1997

Enrique de Argaez from Internet World Stats portal has been collecting statistics about the Internet’s population for 18 years. Basing on his research, it can be predicted that Asian & Romance languages will gain a dominant role among users in the upcoming years. This is especially true for Chinese (already spoken by 20% of the Internet users), Spanish and Portuguese (12% in total). Searching for reasons of the linguistic changes in the global network, one should indicate the growing availability of broadband connections, the enrichment of societies, as well as geopolitical and demographic factors. Faced with the increased importance of language alternatives to English, Michael Oustinoff² postulates moving from the tradition of preparing a monolithic content in English to the multilingualism: either translated (also automatically) or dedicated substance.

English won’t be the Internet’s lingua franca
 — Michael Oustinoff, 2012

Providing a reliable and comprehensible source of information in several languages is not only a matter of a good practice today, but also an opportunity to gain new markets³, streamlining processes in historically heterogeneous societies (e.g. Belgium) or these with a high percentage of immigrants (e.g. Great Britain). It may be even a legally enforced obligation imposed on own offices, as in the case of the European Union.

If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen
 — Willy Brandt, Chancellor of Germany

Furthermore, the multilingualism is not only about text translations nor a flag selector. The particular attention should be paid when designing components of such a system. Different habits, understanding of metaphors or even perception of symbols and colours may affect the way of thinking and navigation, interaction methods, and content organization. In some cases, even the completely redesigned version of the interface may be the way to go!

Business globalization, population migrations and new legal requirements force website developers to extend their systems’ functionality with a multilingual content support. The growing scale of the phenomenon has become the reason for discussing such implementations in a series of articles. During this course, the influence of cultural aspects on interfaces will be widely discussed, terminology will be systematized and selected strategies of internationalization will be compared. This series is intended for both programmers and designers.


Before reading the next articles, basic concepts should be defined. Terms: localization, internationalization, multilingualism and globalization are often confused and used interchangeably. However, they’re not equivalent and describe different aspects of creating systems that communicate with users in several languages.

Localization means content adaptation to specific language and culture requirements. Especially, each application is localized, even if available only in one language.

Internationalization is a way of designing applications allowing convenient localization. It doesn’t imply multilingualism, but rather a group of technical solutions and good practices making it more convenient and faster.

Multilingualism combines localization and internationalization techniques to make a system available for users from various regions, countries and cultures.

Globalization is the process of a worldwide integration between people, companies, governments, and for that reason, it drives multilingual web expansion.

In a technical jargon, the above are often abbreviated to respectively: l10n, i18n, m17n, g11n. These so-called numeronyms were created in the late ’80s by replacing the central part of the word with the number of letters within. More about this story can be read on Tex Texin’s homepage. A brief comparison of terms is shown in Tab. 1.

Tab. 1. Localization, internationalization and multilingualism comparison. By Author.

Further reading

This article is the first part of the Multilingual Web series. See also:

  • #2 The Cultural Impact On Design
  • #3 Technical Considerations
  • #4 Internationalization Strategies


  1. Crystal, D. (1997). English as a Global Language (pp. 1, 29, 86, 120–122). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Oustinoff, M. (2012). English won’t be the Internet’s Lingua Franca. In Vannini, L. & Crosnier, H. L. (Eds.), NET.Lang Towards the Multilingual Cyberspace. Caen: C&F Editions.
  3. Bel Habib, I. (2011). Multilingual Skills Provide Export Benefits and Better Access to New Emerging Markets. Montréal: Sens Public International Web Journal.
  4. Ishida, R., & Miller, S. K. (2015). Localization vs. Internationalization. World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved from
  5. Texin, T. (2010). Origin of the Abbreviation i18n. I18n Guy Home Page. Retrieved from