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How do language codes work

We can find more than 7,000 different languages that help each society to preserve their cultures and religions, inter alia.

This huge number of different languages and their respective dialects accounts for the countless language combinations one can come across in the localisation industry. With the ultimate objective of easing the recognition and the classification of the languages, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) that is responsible for creating standards for international normalisation, has created a normative using language codes instead of language names.

ISO 639-1

 The standard ISO 639-1:2002 includes the Alpha-2 code: a two-letter language identifier for the recognition of the most-known languages for later translation and localisation work. Let’s see some examples:
  • German: de
  •  Spanish: es
  • French: fr
  • English: en

ISO 639-2

The standard ISO 639-2 involves the Alpha-3 code: a three-letter language identifier for the recognition of the 21 languages that could have alternative codes for bibliographic (B) or terminology (T) issues. Let’s see some examples:

  • Albanian: alb (B) / sqi (T)
  • Czech: cze (B) / ces (T)
  • Chinese: chi (B) / zho (T)
  • Basque: baq (B) / eus (T)

Localisation industry

In the localisation industry, the standard ISO 639-1 is the most common for identifying source and target languages of a given project. However, there is a second part in the code (also a two-letter code mostly found in capital letters) that represents the geographical area where these languages are spoken. For example, let’s see different variants for the French language code:

  • Belgium: fr-BE
  • Canada: fr-CA
  • France: fr-FR
  •  Switzerland: fr-CH
  • Luxembourg: fr-LU
  • Monaco: fr-MC