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: Another reason why flags should be avoided is that they are often "politically charged". If a user dislikes the country a certain flag stands for, his appreciation of the whole website might suffer.

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 links

Flag 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