MMW Op-Ed: Tips for Developing Multilingual Applications for Mobile Devices

Tips for developing multilingual applications for mobile devices

The following is a guest contributed post from Cristian Arno, the founder and managing director of Lingo24, a translation and localization company.

It’s been estimated that there are now nearly 7 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, equivalent to around 95% of the global population. This doesn’t mean there are quite that many mobile users of course. Many people hold multiple subscriptions but it’s still a staggering figure. A new report by GSMA Intelligence predicts that smartphones will account for two out of every three mobile connections globally by 2020. There are already more than two billion smartphone connections today, making the global app market a truly vast one.

The remote nature of app stores and transactions means that international markets should be relatively easy to tap into. While miles don’t matter, cultural and linguistic barriers certainly do. English might be the lingua franca of the business and online world to a certain extent, but the fact remains that the majority of the global population does not speak English. Even those who speak English as a second language are more likely to go for a similar app in their own native tongue, where a comparable one exists.

Take a look at GSMA’s top 10 countries for smartphone connections and you’ll see that the majority are non-English speaking. The top nation China, in fact, has more smartphone subscriptions than the next five combined.


In order to increase the reach of a particular app it’s clear that you need to speak your customers’ language. There are two main ways of doing that.


Localization is simply the process of adapting an existing app for use in another locale. This essentially means releasing a series of separate products tailored for different markets, but that doesn’t mean they have to be designed separately. The source code will remain largely the same, but you should plan localization and build flexibility into your app from the start of your design and development process. This means you can initially release a single home market version with the option to localize more easily further down the line. Reaching into new markets when circumstances and market research dictate can help extend the life of your app and increase overall return on investment.

Alternatively you can release localized versions simultaneously. The ‘simship’ (simultaneous shipping) model can be more effective as apps often sell best in the initial stages after release, especially with an effective marketing campaign.


Internationalization is a slightly different approach. Instead of releasing individual versions of an app tailored for different market, you release a single core app with multilingual functionality. The usual way to do this is to have a language selection option that is shown the first time the app is used and can also be accessed subsequently. It can be useful to use visual symbols such as flags to represent the languages available.

Design considerations

If you are targeting specific markets it’s worth researching the most popular mobile platforms, versions and operating systems within those markets. Android continues to be the market leader worldwide. Apple’s iOS continues to have its adherents of course, but Microsoft recently released a list of 24 countries where the Windows Phone is specifically outselling the iPhone. Many commentators have viewed Blackberry’s reversal in fortunes as a terminal decline, but it still remains strong in some territories such as South Africa.

When building in flexibility for localization or content translation, make sure you allow for text expansion. This is particularly important for mobile localization due to the limited screen space. Non-Latin scripts such as Arabic and written Chinese can take differing amounts of space to express the same information but so can some languages that use the Latin alphabet. German, for example, tends to have a higher incidence of long words than English. Translating to right-to-left languages such as Hebrew and Arabic can also be problematic if not allowed for at the design stage.

It’s important to keep your translatable content separate from your executable code, as this eliminates the need to change the code for the entire application for each translation.

Translation and cultural issues

A straight ‘dictionary’ translation rarely makes for engaging content. A localized or internationalized app should take into account cultural subtleties, idioms, images and layouts of mobile pages that are appropriate for your target market. Before finalization, perform a linguistic review of the translated content in its operating environment, using a native language speaker. You should also test apps on each platform for which you have localized and for major mobile browsers.

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to developing localized and multilingual mobile applications. But doing so can be a great way to boost sales and extend an app’s life, and it can be worth all the time and effort you invest.