Techniques for multilingual Web sites:
Language settings in browsers

Most browsers send language preferences to the server according to an ordered list of languages in the browser configuration. Thus the preferences do not depend on the pages but on the general settings of the browser.

Typically the default setting in a browser is that the list consists of one language only, the "own" language of the browser, i.e. the language used in its user interface (menus, buttons, error messages, etc). This naturally implies that if you install, say, a German version of a browser and do not change the language preferences, you have, as regards to language negotiation, thereby said that you only know German. This usually isn't fatal, but your browsing will not be as comfortable as it might be, if you actually know other languages too.

There's a little service for showing the language settings as sent by your browser. It is not always possible to see these settings in the browser itself exactly in the format that they are as sent by it.

For example, in the English version of Internet Explorer 4 the language preferences can be changed by selecting "View" from the main menu, then "Internet Options..." and the "General" sheet, and, in a new window which pops up, item "Languages...", which opens the "Language Preferences" window. You can add languages using the "Add..." button and selecting a language from a menu that pops up. The buttons "Move Up" and "Move Down" can be used to sort the languages so that those which you know best appear first (upmost).

IE lets you pick up languages using their names but gives their codes (like en for English) in brackets. If you need to work with two-letter language codes, see ISO 639 Languages and Dialects, and More.

For several other browsers you can find advice (in different languages by language negotiation!) in the Debian project instructions for setting language preferences. The instructions warn that if you wish to include a particular variant of a language, such as British English (en-GB), you should also have that language in general as an entry (English, en) in the list (after the more specific entry).

Problems may arise if the same computer and browser is used, at different times, e.g. in a classroom by different people with different language preferences. There does not seem to be any simple solution to that at present. Clever users can be told that in a situation like that, if they change a browser's language preferences for themselves, it is polite to reset them when they finish. The preferences should be reset so that they are reasonable for most users. In Finland for example, this probably means the language list Finnish, English, Swedish.

Next section: Notes.

2002-12-22 Jukka K. Korpela