Making your WordPress website multilingual

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What is the best way to offer your website in different languages? Does WordPress support this? And how would I actually go about it?

Reasons for a multilingual website

Many of our clients want to offer their content not only in their native language but in other languages as well. The companies often have clients in other countries already and want to expand, or they feel that they cannot reach enough people if they confine themselves to one language. Some are located in countries that are multilingual, like Switzerland, Canada or Luxemburg, and they want to cater to all of the languages spoken in their home country.

This does not apply quite as often to companies located in English speaking countries, but here in Germany it is rather normal to offer at least an English version of your website. The only exception being many local businesses who don’t need to reach out quite as far. But I feel they cater more and more to expats as well.

What is the best way to build a multilingual website with WordPress?

Well, in short: Their is no best way. This really depends on your website:

  • What kind of content do you offer?
    • Do you write a blog in different languages?
    • Or do you basically provide information about your business, that is more “static” content?
  • How many languages are you planning to offer?
  • Will all languages get the same amount of new content?
    That is, you might offer a website with a blog in your main language but only your business information in other languages.
  • Does your website have complex functionality, e.g. a shop?

Which options do we have?

There are two basic concepts in order to implement multilingualism:

  • Using a plugin that allows for your to create different language versions of your content within one website.
  • Using a WordPress Multisite install, that is creating a website for each of your language versions, and using a plugin to take care of the connection between the different versions.

Various language versions within the same website

There are a couple of free and premium plugins that allow you to create different language versions of your website within your single website.

The best known free plugin (with the option of adding functionality by buying the premium version) probably is Polylang, the best known plugin, that’s only available as a premium version probably is WPML.

You basically get the option to add additional languages to your WordPress install and now need to decide for each piece of content in which language you want to provide it. You are also able to interconnect the different language versions of an article. This allows for your readers to start in one language and switch languages for every individual piece of content they are reading.

So if you had 10 pages for your single language version of your website you will end up with 20 for 2 languages and so on. Same for posts and other types of content, e.g. products in a store.

This probably gives you an idea what the problem is with that kind of solution: If you are an avid writer you will pretty soon have a lot of posts that need keeping track of.

But there is another option as well:

Keeping your language versions strictly separated within a WordPress multisite install

WordPress can be turned into a so-called multisite install. And it is what it sounds like: It’s possible to organize multiple websites within one WordPress install. This way each language version gets its own website and the content stays strictly separated.

The premium plugin MultilingualPress uses this option to organize your different language versions and interconnect all of your content. It keeps things nice and tidy, and you won’t have problems with getting the correct translations at certain points, e.g. with contact forms or the check-out in your shop.

The drawback: Managing a WordPress multisite install is a bit more complex than managing a single site. There are some more error sources added to the mix and not all plugins like to be installed within a WordPress multisite.

It also is a rather pricy solution right now: It comes with a price tag of 199 $/year for one website*. Additionally, you might need more expensive versions of other premium plugins you might want to use, because multisite support often does not belong to the standard features of many plugins.

*There has been a rumor that there might be a smaller version as a free plugin within the WordPress plugin repository, but I haven’t heard more about it so far.