Techniques for multilingual Web sites:
Multilinguality of a Web site - the concept

Multilinguality of a site means here that the same textual content is available to users in different language versions, for all or at least some of the pages. Normally each page is in one language only, at least for the most of it. Sometimes multilinguality can be implemented so that one page contains texts in different languages. However, this is usually practical only if there are just a few languages and the texts are short, e.g. on a page where the main content is an image, accompanied with short captions in two or a few languages. In most cases, separate pages in separate languages are needed.

Multilinguality in this sense normally means that each language version of a page is in a file of its own and can be referred to using a Web address (URL) of its own. But since it would be difficult to announce the address of a French version to French-speaking people, the address of a German version to German-speaking people, etc., it would be best if the same address could be used by all - so that everyone would get the page in his own language, or in the language among the available alternatives that is best understood by him. This can be partly achieved using automatic language negotiation; on the user side, this only requires that the user once specifies his language preferences in the settings of this browser. But for several reasons, the language negotiation mechanism is not sufficient (and not indispensable, on the other hand). In any case the author should write explicit links, through which the user can move e.g. from a German version to a French version and vice versa.

Thus, this document discusses the methods of "serving" different language versions to users. We will not particularly discuss the production of such versions, but there are some technical comments on this in section Notes.

As an example of a multilingual site - which by the way discusses the creation of such sites - the Alis Babel site needs to be mentioned. Its generic address is
If the browser supports language negotiation, as most browsers in use do, then using the address above (e.g. by following that link) will give you a version in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Swedish, or Portuguese, according to which of these languages occurs first in the user's language preferences. If, for example, Swedish is the first language there, the user gets the Swedish version, which is also accessible using its specific address
(Note that the browser does not display that but the general address, if the general address was used.) If none of the languages appear in the language preferences (e.g. when Finnish is the only language there), then the intent is that the user sees a page which describes the situation and gives a menu of available alternatives. Some browsers however fail to do that; instead they give the user some of the alternatives in a rather random fashion. Even this isn't fatal, if that alternative contains links to the other options.

Next section: Why links?.

2002-12-21 Jukka Korpela