I18n in a React Application

August 26, 2019 - 8 minute read

If you are working on an application that will require multiple-language support, then you’ve probably already given some thought to internationalization (I18n) and localization. Whether you have or not, here is my suggestion:

Do not wait until you need additional languages to implement localization in your application.

Implementing an effective localization framework early will save you from mountains of mindless refactoring and copy-pasting later on.

This article will reference the following repositories and articles. You can check them out before reading, but they will also be linked below.

Starting off simple

At the most simple, a localization framework takes some sort of key and returns the phrase for it in the current language. This could look something like this:

import React from 'react';

let language = 'en';

const englishPhrases = {hello_world: 'Hello World!'};
const frenchPhrases = {hello_world: 'Bonjour Monde!'};

const availablePhrases = {en: englishPhrases, fr: frenchPhrases};

const t = key => {
  const phrases = availablePhrases[language];
  return phrases[key];
};

// Then to use it:
const SomeLocalizedComponent = () => {
  return <p>{t('hello_world')}</p>;
};

This is great, but you will notice that it’s not really the “React way”. If the language changes while SomeLocalizedComponent is mounted, it won’t update the t('hello_world'). We can solve this issue by using React’s Context API.

The React way

Ok, so let’s take a crack at it using context. First off, we will use the same simple function we defined before and build off of that.

import React from 'react';

const LocalizeContext = React.createContext({
  setLanguage: () => {},
  t: () => {},
});

const englishPhrases = {hello_world: 'Hello World!'};
const frenchPhrases = {hello_world: 'Bonjour Monde!'};

const availablePhrases = {en: englishPhrases, fr: frenchPhrases};

const LocalizeProvider = ({children}) => {
  const [language, setLanguage] = React.useState('en');

  const t = key => {
    const phrases = availablePhrases[language];
    return phrases[key];
  };

  return (
    <LocalizeContext.Provider value={{setLanguage, t}}>
      {children}
    </LocalizeContext.Provider>
  );
};

// Then to use it (must be wrapped in the Provider for the context to work):

const App = () => {
  <LocalizeProvider>
    <SomeLocalizedComponent />
  </LocalizeProvider>;
};

const SomeLocalizedComponent = () => {
  const localize = React.useContext(LocalizeContext);

  return <p>{localize.t('hello_world')}</p>;
};

A little more complicated, but not too bad. The provider context exposes the same t function as before, but also exposes a function setLanguage in order to change the language the “React way”. React uses a lot of patterns from the functional programming paradigm. As such, it can only observe changes when you call update functions. It is unable to react (heh) when a variable value changes. Great, so let’s break down what’s changed.

Creating the context

First, you need to create the context that will be consumed in order to use the localization:

import React from 'react';

const LocalizeContext = React.createContext({  setLanguage: () => {},  t: () => {},});

Here we create the context. We put placeholders in for the two functions just in case you try to use the context outside of the LocalizeProvider we just constructed. Your functions will be useless without having a provider, so make sure to wrap your root App component in the provider so that you can use the LocalizeContext throughout your entire application.

Exposing the localization functions

Next, you need to pass down the functions for setting the language and translating your phrases:

const LocalizeProvider = ({children}) => {
  const [language, setLanguage] = React.useState('en');
  const t = key => {
    const phrases = availablePhrases[language];
    return phrases[key];
  };

  return (
    <LocalizeContext.Provider value={{setLanguage, t}}>      {children}    </LocalizeContext.Provider>  );
};

You can see that the language has been moved into a React state instead of being a variable. This allows you to set the language in a way React can detect: using the setLanguage function exposed by useState.

Also notice how both setLanguage and t are being set in the value prop of the provider. Anything that consumes the context has access to both of those functions, which means that any child can set the language, or translate a key.

Great, let’s make it better

So you got it working, but there are many ways to improve the performance. Hooks have unlocked a bunch of ways to simplify how components are written, while still selectively optimizing how functions within them are memoized. While this is useful for optimization, it is extremely important, even vital when using context. When components consume functions or variables from the context value, and then use them inside of a useEffect, it’s important that these values do not update unless they absolutely need to, as every update will trigger the useEffect. Here are some optimizations we can do.

import React from 'react';

const LocalizeContext = React.createContext({
  setLanguage: () => {},
  t: () => {},
});

const englishPhrases = {hello_world: 'Hello World!'};
const frenchPhrases = {hello_world: 'Bonjour Monde!'};

const availablePhrases = {en: englishPhrases, fr: frenchPhrases};

const LocalizeProvider = ({children}) => {
  // 1. This is actually perfect as it is. `setLanguage` references a static  //    function, so you know that this will remain constant despite reloads.  const [language, setLanguage] = React.useState('en');
  // 2. Memoizing the const `t` ensures that it will remain a reference to the  //    same function unless `language` is updated, as shown by the dependency  //    array (the array `[language]`). This is great, as we want the function  //    to be called again every time the language changes so that an updated  //    translation is displayed.  const t = React.useCallback(    key => {      const phrases = availablePhrases[language];      return phrases[key];    },    [language],  );
  // 3. Memoizing the value returned will ensure that components that consume  //    LocalizeContext will only reload when this value changes. As you can  //    see in the dependency list (the array `[t]`), this value will update  //    only when `t` updates. Since `setLanguage` is a reference to a static  //    setter function, this does not need to be included in the dependency  //    array. Since `t` will only ever change when `language` does, components  //    that consume from the context will only update when `language` changes.  const value = React.useMemo(() => ({setLanguage, t}), [t]);
  return (
    <LocalizeContext.Provider value={value}>
      {children}
    </LocalizeContext.Provider>
  );
};

const LocalizedComponent = () => {
  const localize = React.useContext(LocalizeContext);

  return <p>{localize.t('hello_world')}</p>;
};

These changes ensure that we are optimizing our updates, which is very important since it’s likely that most components in your application will be utilizing the LocalizeContext.

In our first pass using context, all components that consume the context would reload every time anything in your React tree changed, since the changes would propagate up to the children prop, causing the provider to reload (which wraps all of your components), which would create a brand new object for value, causing a refresh in all children.

With these optimizations, changes to children do nothing to change the value object, only changes to the language. This means we will avoid unnecessary reloads, and only update children when the language changes. This is exactly what we want: dynamic updates to all translated strings every time the language changes.

But wait, there’s more

You’d be fine with that if you don’t require any complexity beyond simple translation. However there are a few things lacking in this ~30 line example that you’ll find in the final product (Localize Toolkit):

  1. A system for organizing phrases would be beneficial. In this example, they all reside at the base level of their object. It would be nice to be able to nest the object in order to organize based on page or common uses.

  2. It would be nice to be able to use templating strings to insert dynamic content into the translated phrase. For example, the key hello_name could map to the phrase 'Hello %{name}' and allow you to set name to be 'John Doe'.

  3. It would be nice to fetch phrases from an API. This would save space on the front-end by storing the large phrase objects on the back-end and fetching them as needed.

  4. It would be nice to have a caching system for storing fetched phrases in order to avoid unnecessary API calls to fetch new languages.

The first two points are solved by the localization framework itself. In the case of the Localize Toolkit, this meant including AirBnB’s Polyglot.js library. While all of these things are achievable yourself, sometimes it’s better to use someone’s pre-tested, proved solution. In the case of Polyglot.js, this means you get nesting and organization out of the box, as well as string interpolation and pluralization. Will I likely implement my own solution down the road in the Localize Toolkit? Probably, but it is a lot of work for something that is already built and works perfectly.

The last two issues can easily be solved by adding functions within the body of the LocalizeProvider. I encourage you to browse the code and documentation for the Localize Toolkit to see how they were implemented.

If you want to play around with the final product, here are some examples:

  1. Minimal example

    • The absolute bare-bones example of using Localize Toolkit
  2. Full example

    • A full example with faked API calls to fetch new languages
  3. Overlay pattern example

    • The full example, but with additional features to avoid remounting on language fetch by using an overlay for loading
  4. Pseudo Localization

    • An example using pseudo localization (useful for testing how other languages might look without having to add them)

Ok, that pretty much does it. It’s not a very complex tool, but it provides you with an efficient and versatile system for implementing multiple languages in your application. Obviously the actual toolkit is a fair bit more complex and exposes more functions and variables, but in essence the use case is the same.

Good luck with your localization.