Localising—or Is That Localizing—Content within a Language

By Rahel Anne Bailie | STC Fellow

In a sense, I’ve always been an outsider. I started life in a completely bilingual, double-culture household, where my great-grandmother spoke no English, my father spoke no Slovak, and my mother and grandparents could communicate in both languages. My cultural references were different from my schoolmates, separated by an obscure religion and my parents’ decision to remove our television, the cultural binding of the 1960s. Upon graduating from high school, I moved to Montreal, where the English-French divide was at its peak, around the time that Bill 22 made French the official language of Québec, and I became an anglophone amongst the francophones. Then, I moved to Vancouver, a city of immigrants, where residents of European background hover just under 50 percent. And I loved it.

The great and subtle differences of culture and in use of language was an ongoing source of intrigue for me. As my vocabulary adapted from Frenglish, where I would “shoot” things into the garbage can (jeter à la poubelle) or “open” the light (ouvrir la lumière) to more British Columbian idiom, and my diction changed my pronunciation of Van-coo-ver to Van-kew-ver and my “eh” to “heh,” I thought I was quite resilient. I learned how to greet people and count in Cantonese, and I learned the names of vegetables from the local greengrocer, where Punjabi was the lingua franca.

Now, I live in London, where you can hear a dozen different languages and accents on a single bus ride. And whilst [while] I consider myself relatively articulate, my Canadian English often feels like a different language from the mother tongue of British English. I thought I was good at doing cross-cultural translation. After all, Canada’s proximity to the United States means being inundated with American language variations. I could easily translate “how y’all doing?” to “how are you?” in my brain, but had to ask a co-worker the right response to “y’alright?” when asked that each morning in the English Midlands. (By the way, y’alright is the equivalent to “how are you,” and the correct answer is “yeah, y’alright?”.)

What was more disturbing was to have my business correspondence corrected. “I’ll have her call you” was considered too American, and changed to “I’ll ask her to call you.” Ending my emails with “Cheers” was corrected because that’s specifically East London; the suggested substitution was “Best regards.” I couldn’t bring myself to use that because whilst [while] it might be common in the UK, in North America, it’s considered a quaint holdover from letter-writing. But as I’ve learned to say, “it’s all swings and roundabouts in the end, innit?”

Localisation [Localization] in the Early Days of the Web

Take yourself back to the late 1990s. The United States is the centre [center] of the internet universe. The novelty of selling flowers from Hawaii online is giving way to more commercial endeavours [endeavors]. The need to localise [localize] a website for use by Canadians hasn’t been addressed yet. So a typical purchase transaction went something like this:

  1. Choose item and add it to the shopping basket, mentally calculating the $USD to $CAD.
  2. Fill in the payment details until you get to the last line of the address, where you are expected to pick up the cognitive load of translating “zip code” into “postal code,” and try to enter an alpha-numeric value (ANA NAN) into a form field intended for numbers only (NNNNN). And fail.
  3. Call the support number, where the representative cheerfully informs you that they use 99999 as the zipcode for all of Canada.
  4. Enter 99999 as your postal code, and then see that the item in question is not available for postage and packaging (known as shipping and handling in North America) or will be exorbitantly expensive to send across the border.

These interactions happened in a time when field testing documents was common but usability for websites was in its infancy. There was an assumption that the market was a reflection of the developers: middle-class, native-English-speaking, able-bodied, non-colour[color]-blind Americans. The solipsism was quite obvious: Canadians were given the privilege of using the site if they were willing to accept American spelling, idiom, currency, and addressing conventions. Catering to other English-speaking countries was not seen as a priority. The market was firmly positioned for an in-country market, sometimes even excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

Even when a company recognised [recognized] the need for a multi-country site, companies recognised [recognized] that the effort was significant. In a Web 1.0 world, the options for delivering page-based content was limited to page-level copy-and-paste exercises, where content was manually updated to meet legal, regulatory, or cultural needs. In fact, in this article, I’ve purposely retained my British voice and casual-professional tone to reflect how the media available to us in the late 1990s restricted our ability to localise [localize] for multiple audiences. It’s distracting at best, and confounding at worst. No matter which audience we decided to serve, we inevitably excluded multiple other audiences.

Same-Language Localisation [Localization] Today

Fast forward twenty years, marketing has gone global, and the content landscape has seen dramatic changes.

On the presentation side, we’ve gone from single delivery to a more-or-less standard computer monitor display size to multiple deliveries, using responsive design, which accommodates displays of all sizes. We can accommodate everything from super-large television screens to the smallest of wearables, from public-space kiosks to auto-delivered content into IoT devices.

On the content side, we’ve seen the need to create adaptive content to accommodate a broader range of delivery targets and user needs. But it’s not as simple as delivering content for different screen sizes. The content itself needs to be localised [localized] for a variety of needs across the globe. The harsh reality is that the days when companies could publish instructions in American English and with an American context, and expect consumers to bear the heavy cognitive load, are over. Companies that use International English have also discovered that American audiences are the most demanding when it comes to expecting culturally-specific content. The demand for localised [localized] content is strong in the United States.

Same-Language Localisation [Localization] for Fun and Profit

Did the title of this section make sense to you? If you are from North America, “for fun and profit” is a familiar phrase, often used ironically. Outside of western, industrialised [industrialized] countries, the phrase would be read as a statement; the ironic context would be lost. Living with a Kenyan flatmate for two years made me aware of just how much of our language is specific to a culture, a country, or a set of laws, even when it comes to content that we might consider relatively dry. There is no such thing as generic English.

Here are the top areas where content needs to be localised [localized].


This is the most obvious example of the need to localise [localize]. North America uses a 110 volt grid, whereas the rest of the world uses 220 volt. (I fried 3 GPS—or SatNav—luggage trackers—before I figured out that the company was sending me a tracker meant for the North American market.) Temperatures are in Centigrade, unless in the United States. Recipes are interesting, because each country measures slightly differently. In the United States, it’s Imperial cups and ounces. In Canada, it’s metric cups and ounces. In the UK and EU, it’s grams and millilitres [millileters], with some sites offering conversions between measuring units. Distances need to be converted from miles to kilometres [kilometers], feet to metres [meters], and inches to centimetres [centimeters].


Monetary units need to be localised [localized], which may seem obvious. It’s particularly important when units share a common name, such as a dollar. Is that a Canadian dollar, a U.S. dollar, or a New Zealand dollar? The same goes for dinars, francs, and pesos. When we say “a penny for your thoughts,” how does that resonate with an audience for whom “penny” is not a common term, or will it resonate with the next generation of Canadians, now that Canada has phased out pennies altogether?

Terms and Metaphors

A long while back, I saw an eBay ad asking for a replacement mirror for a driver’s side door—and you can guess what happened when the British seller sent the mirror to the American buyer. A driver-side mirror in the UK is a passenger-side mirror in the United States. Using driving metaphors can be effective, but that content needs to be localised [localized] when intended for use in countries where driving is on the opposite side of the road. It’s not enough to simply assume that the product is a mirror image. In the UK, the driver gets in on the right-hand side of the car to drive on the left-hand side of the road, but the gas pedal is in the same position as for a car being driven on the right-hand side of the road.

There are a lot of automobile metaphors that simply don’t translate well—both literally and culturally. You probably know that a car’s “trunk” is a “boot,” a “hood” is a “bonnet,” and a “windshield” is a “windscreen,” but do you know the difference between saloon and estate cars? Using the term “soccer mom van” would fall flat in countries where soccer is football, a minivan is an MPV, and “white van man” is a stereotype for the vehicle driven by a tradesperson, typically a smallish white van.

Location-Based Terminology

When I tell people that a friend left London to move to Georgia, I automatically specify “the country, not the state” to avoid confusion. When you list your addresses, do you specify the country, as well as the city? There are 18 locations called London in the United States alone, and another nine places called London around the world, aside from the most famous city of London in the UK.

While I’ve been using the UK and the United States as counterpoints to demonstrate the need for same-language localisation [localization], I should point out that addressing varies wildly around the world, as Google Maps discovered when trying to provide directions in India. There, the use of landmarks is more important than building numbers—a friend listed her snail mail address with the apartment and the intersection the building was on followed by “upstairs from Pizza Express” before the name of the city.

Wayfinding for buildings is another area of potential confusion. Someone recently faulted me for not including the name of my building when I gave directions: “You left out the most important part!” I can attest to the fact that the physical addressing of buildings in Central London still confuses me. Not only do building numbers sometimes go up one side of the street, then down the other side—putting number 61 across from number 12, for example—but the four streets surrounding a square all bear the same name. This system is completely obvious to a UK resident, but confounds a North American who is used to each of the four streets having unique names.

Another example of location-based localisation [localization] is the use of the word “estate,” which means the same as “subdivision” in North America, where an estate is more likely to mean a mansion on a large piece of property. This mansion would have a ground floor, also called the first floor in North America, whereas in the UK and Europe, the first floor of a building is above the ground floor, which can create some confusion when giving directions.

Cultural Localisations [Localizations]

This category contains the widest range of language and is the most problematic area if not localised [localized] well. Earlier, I referred to the difference between the use of “shipping and handling” in North America and “postage and packaging” in the UK—it’s called “postage and handling” in Australia. This difference in terminology can get confusing for users, especially considering that audiences aren’t always native speakers of any kind of English in the first place.

Culture comes out in many ways, and as companies are using UX writers to create “on brand” copy, such as error messages and disclaimers, the likelihood of losing your audience increases exponentially.

One example of a culturally-specific disclaimer reads like this:

This week’s fine print is brought to you by our middle school ’90s mixtape. Press play and enjoy: It’s been, one week since the return of the mack. No diggity, this is how we do it. I’ve been kissed by a rose, but you’re my own worst enemy. MMMBop. Every little step I take, you say, I only hear what I want to. Look, if it makes you happy, push it. Now, my love, do you ever dream of candy-coated raindrops? Kriss Kross might make you jump jump (sic), but our lawyers will make you read read (sic): This $2 coupon expires on Sunday, September 18th, 2016 at 11:59 PM PST. You must have a Yelp Eat24 account to use our code….

I’m sure that there are many cultural references in that paragraph, but most of it went over my head, and if the service was offered in another country, it would be meaningless. We sprinkle idiom throughout our work without realising [realizing] that this becomes bespoke content—or “custom-made”—and may be unintentionally offensive. It’s not as simple as the difference between saying “pants,” which are “slacks” in North America but “underwear” in the UK, unless you say that something is pants, in which case you mean that it’s worthless, similar to “that sucks.” In some countries, humour [humor] runs to slapstick, while that falls flat in other markets. The English used in North American might not work in Dubai, for example, because the cultural and linguistic expectations work hand-in-hand, so localising [localizing] means understanding the culture well to get the details right.

Different countries have different expectations. Chui Chui Tan, a UX professional specialising [specializing] in international business, describes the differences between expectations for localisation [localization] in different Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. These differences can range from how employees expect to report incidents through their intranets to how technical information is organised [organized] on a website. The nuances that intersect culture and language make localisation [localization] an interesting, and necessary, step of the publishing process.

As I embark on a new career in healthcare, I’ve been reading about medical terminology and how it differs from culture to culture. Anatomy may be universal, but it seems that the terms for each body part, the equipment used in surgeries (the operations, not the clinics), and the pharmaceuticals used to treat patients all have enough variation that good localisation [localization] can literally mean the difference between life and death. Or, combining localisation [localization] with translation, it means the difference between amputating the left leg or the correct one.


It may seem that as brands like Disney and Netflix go global, cultural references will smoothly translate from one culture to another. However, just as entertainment is becoming more niche—for example, gamers will have reference points that no one else will get, as will sports fans, arts lovers, and so on—so is the potential idiom that sneaks into the language we use. The need for same-language localisation [localization] is becoming more relevant as markets mature, and as content developers, we really do need to watch our language.

RAHEL ANNE BAILIE (rahel.bailie@gmail.com) has been in the content business since the late 1980s. She now works in London, UK, and is an instructor in the Content Strategy Master’s Program at FH-Joanneum in Graz, Austria. She has been consulting in the area of content strategy for corporations, government, and charities, and is now the Director of Content for Bablyon Health, figuring out ways to personalise [personalize] content for diverse audiences. Her drive for efficiency makes her a natural champion of content operations. Rahel has co-authored two books and contributed to several others.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Download the March/April 2021 PDF

2020 PDF Downloads