Why flags should not be used to indicate language choice
Many websites still incorrectly use country flags as symbols of language. For example, on a German tourism website offering English, French, Spanish and Japanese content, you might find something like this:
This may look nice, but it is a bad practice that should be avoided, since flags always stand for countries, not for languages! Many languages are spoken in more than one country. If you choose a country flag to represent a given language, many users from other countries in which the same language is spoken will be annoyed or — even worse — they might feel insulted!
Consider these examples:
- English: A language spoken (natively) in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and many other countries. Often, the British flag is chosen as a symbol of the English language. But: Most native speakers of English live in the United States! Choosing the US flag on the other hand will annoy users from the UK and other English-speaking countries.
- Spanish: Spoken in Spain, but also by hundreds of millions of people in the Americas and around the world. Why would a user from Argentina or Mexico want to click on a Spanish flag to read a text in his or her mother tongue?
- Portuguese: Spoken in Portugal, Brazil and other countries. Most native speakers of Portuguese live in Brazil (190+ million inhabitants), while only about 11 million live in Portugal, where the language originated.
A good alternative to flags: Use the name of the language, written in the language itself: English, Español, Português... If there are only a small number of languages, the language names can be written next to each other. For a large number of languages, a drop-down list can be used. For great examples, see the websites of YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook.
External linksFlag as a symbol of language — stupidity or insult?: A very detailed article about the problem by Jukka Korpela.
You Should Never Use Flags For Language Choice by Janko Jovanovic.
Indicating language choice: flags, text, both, neither? on 456 Berea Street.
Internationalization Best Practices, World Wide Web Consortium.
European Culturally Specific ICT Requirements (pdf), European Committee for Standardization.
Flags and languages don’t mix: Short article by web globalization expert John Yunker.
Last edit: January 2009, www.btitze.net → Languages