Why using flags to represent languages is wrong

I decided to write this post as a result of more and more people making use of this technique, which I consider to be wrong and potentially offensive.

So, why should you not use flags to represent languages?

First of all, a flag is not a symbol of a language, it represents a country. Although it tends to be mistakenly associated with a language, a flag will always be a symbol of a country and one only. The easiest way to combat the belief that it stands for a language is to think about a country which has more than one official language, like Switzerland, where Italian, German and French are all official languages. Which ‘language flag’ could we use to represent Switzerland? The answer is NONE.

Secondly, native speakers of a language may not necessarily live in the country represented by the flag used to symbolize their native language. For example, native English speakers may not live in the U.K. (represented by the British Union Flag) so why would they have to click on the Union Jack to have access to the English version of the text?

Thirdly, there are many countries in the world where similar languages are spoken but in different dialects or with different accents or linguistic particularities. The most common examples are Mexico and Spain, Brazil and Portugal, United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and France and Canada or other former French colonies. Using this representative technique may thus be considered offensive as there is no reason why a Mexican should have to click on the Spanish flag in order to have access to the content of the website in Spanish. Similarly, why would a Brasilian be required to select the flag of Portugal in order to have the website translated into Portuguese?

Fourthly, just to prove how flawed this judgement is, an incredibly high number of people still use the British Union Jack to symbolize the English language. I have met many people who tend to believe that clicking the British Flag will lead them to an English website/text and I wonder why… The British Union Jack (which is usually used to represent the English language and mistakenly called the ‘English’ flag) is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. English is indeed predominantly spoken within the UK (although in different regional accents) but Welsh is also spoken and actually is the official language of Wales, which is under UK. And we all know the true English flag is very different to the Union Jack, don’t we?

And finally, if we think about former British or French colonies which are now independent countries, why would the people of such a country have to turn to the British flag (which is the symbol of the country which colonized them in the past) to access an English version of a website/text?!

So, what SHOULD we use to represent languages? I have had many people asking me this and the answer is rather easy: either international standard codes, such as ENG for English, RO for Romanian, FR for French or the name of the language in its language, and I give a few examples: Deutsch for German or Cymraeg for Welsh.

Hope this post was useful and if anybody knows of any other reason why flags should not be used to represent languages, I would be very happy to know it.

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8 Responses

11.14.11

I totally agree with everything you’ve written here — in fact not long ago I set up a blog specifically about this issue.

If you’ve time to check it out and add any thoughts I’d love to hear them!

11.14.11

Hi James,

Hopefully we can slowly convince people to give up this practice.

11.14.11

There is nothing wrong with using, say, the Union Jack for the English version of a website. It’s the most immediately recognizable visual symbol. It stands out in a sea of text, which can’t be said about the word “English” or “ENG”. That’s why people started using it, and that’s why they will continue using it, whatever your theoretical objections to the practice.
I can assure you that all the webpage designers know that the flag is the symbol of the country and not the language, but they also know that this doesn’t matter for this particular application.

11.14.11

Hi “Me”

Thank you for your post. I respect your opinion and I agree, I actually come from a web design and development background myself and know that most web designers recognize the difference but do use flags to represent languages. However, when you design a website for a big client with global or international presence, pointing out this issue will surely be appreciated as they will be concerned with user experience and ethical behaviour more than anybody else. And I do agree with the fact that people easily recognize the Union Jack as a symbol for the English language. However, if you are looking for the language which you know, I am almost certain that everybody will know the international code of their native/preferred language. And if we think of it, how many people recognize all the flags? I think a lot less than the ones recognizing the codes or the names of the languages. I think that in era where we begin to be more and more preoccupied with ethical behaviour, human rights and equality, it is time to move away from this practice…

11.14.11

good post. Great job! I will definitely stop using flags to represent the languages.

11.14.11

Thank you Jimmy.

11.14.11

This discussion keeps on coming back, for the simple reason that the flags won’t go away.

It’s striking that nearly all of the comments I have read along the lines of What’s the problem with using a flag? you’re just being politically correct! are by monolingual people from largely monolingual countries.

They don’t understand that Irish people may feel faintly queasy about clicking on a Union Jack or Stars and Stripes icon to get English. To say nothing of the unfortunate Belgian who is expected to choose between a Dutch flag or a French flag.

Trouble is, the vast majority of web developers are monolinguals from largely monolingual countries. They don’t undersand, they can’t be persuaded, and they hugely outnumber the rest of us. And that is why the flags won’t go away.

11.14.11

I think you are spot on Paul. I also remember a few months ago I explained to somebody why doing it was wrong, he listened carefully and thanked me for the input, he thought the reason was well founded and seemed very interested in the topic. A few days later he approved a design which used flags for the languages and when I queried it he simply replied “Everybody’s doing it!” Not sure why in this digital environment copying others is thought to be the only way/the right way. But this is heading towards a different discussion…which I may write about in the future, I think it is required now.

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