The questions pop up often enough in internationalization circles so I’ll address them here:
1. how should I localize a language selection list?
2. how should I sort it?
Localized Language Lists
Customers use a language selection list to change languages. You must assume that the currently selected language is inappropriate for some reason. One possible reason is that the user cannot read the page content. This means that a localized language list that displays all target language options in the language of my current page probably won’t be understood. For example, let’s pretend that I speak English but am on a Japanese web site. Presenting me with language options that include ” 英語” will not help me if I don’t read Japanese. I can’t be expected to know that those characters mean “English” to a Japanese person. This option is unhelpful. What is helpful?
The right way to represent any language selection list is to display languages in their own language and script. For example, English should be English, Spanish should be Español, Japanese is 日本語, etc. You don’t need to localize this list into every language. One list using the target language’s own language and script for each language choice is both sufficient and optimal. This guarantees that I’ll be able to read and select my target language regardless of the current page’s language setting. This is the most universal option you have, and I consider this a best practice for creating language selection lists.
I don’t know how better to prepare you for my answer…so here it is. The actual sort order is less important than consistency. Two points make this obvious to me:
1. if your customer wants to choose a different language, they probably don’t speak the current one, and the current language’s sort rules won’t be particularly useful anyway.
2. you can’t accurately guess what language rules you should use because you don’t know which language the user will select.
With these points in mind, I don’t think the sort order matters. Correct linguistic sorts for this list are not critical, and anything you choose will be inconvenient to someone. For this reason, I think you simply have to choose a sort order and be consistent every time you show the language list. My suggestion is that you simply order the list in U.S. English order if you consider U.S. English to be the base language of your product. If you consider your base language to be something else, use that. My point is that it doesn’t matter. Sure, you’ll be tempted to provide this list in the sorted order of the language of the current page or host OS setting. Sure that’s an option, but it’ll be incorrect more often than correct when it’s needed. Save your sanity. Choose an order. Be consistent. Don’t worry about localizing this order.
So this sort issue is bothering you still? You just can’t accept it? Ok, that’s fine, but consider this. The solution I’ve described is already used by some pretty big players. Since I just finished evaluating Facebook, let’s use it as an example. Regardless of which localized site I visit, regardless of my browser language preferences, Facebook shows the same list of languages in the same sort order. They don’t even use a US English sort. Their choice is something different, something almost like a US English sort, but maybe using the Romanized version of the target language? Here’s an example — Japanese is sorted with other languages that start with an “N” sound. The Japanese pronunciation is romanized as “nihongo”. So, “nihongo” starts with an n and sorts with other languages that start with n? I can’t quite figure the sort rules out BUT that’s my point…it doesn’t matter. Its consistent every time I go to the page, and it works. Here’s a shot of that Facebook page:
Providing a language selection list for your multilingual product is a great idea. It lets customers conveniently change the UI language of the product. Don’t over-think this problem. You can provide this feature without spending countless hours of debate. Follow my suggestions:
- Provide a single language selection list in which each entry is translated into the target language and script.
- Choose a sort order, any order. Be consistent in displaying this order.
Have a suggestion or comment? I’d enjoy hearing from you.