You should never use flags for language choice

October 27, 2008

Photo by nofrills

Flag icons are pretty (like fam-fam-fam icon set). But flag represents a country, not a language. Isn't it obvious? No, it's obviously not! While I surfed the web yesterday I found several websites that use flags for language choice. Here are a few reasons why you'll never want to do that.

1. It can be very confusing

There are many flags in the world that are very similar. And when they are 16×16 they become hardly recognizable. Let's, for example, take a look at the following flags:

22px-Flag_of_the_Netherlands.svg  Netherlands 22px-Flag_of_Luxembourg.svg  Luxembourg 22px-Flag_of_Croatia.svg  Croatia
22px-Flag_of_Slovakia.svg  Slovakia 22px-Flag_of_Slovenia.svg  Slovenia 22px-Flag_of_Russia.svg  Russia

Do you see where the problem is? Yes, they are all similar. And some of them are almost identical! And that's not all. It can be even more confusing. Let's take Canada for example. If you use a flag of Canada for language choice, in which language content would be: English or French?

This one argument should be enough to convince you not to use flags. But if not, here are two more.

2. It could insult

Few years ago, one of our clients was showing us a website in order to show us what he would like to have on his own. Suddenly, he pointed to English flag and said "Hmm, I DO speak English, but this is not the flag of my country. I hate when I see this! I might not know all the flags, and then what?" Simple.

3. It could mess up your design

Just imagine a website localized in ten or more languages. Where would you put all these flags? Just imagine what would it look like?

So,what would be the right choice?

Although it is hard to tell what would be the best choice, one thing is certain: language choices should be presented with language names in the languages themselves. This can be done, for example, as a list of text links, or by populating drop down list.

What is your opinion? If you disagree, I'd like to know why!

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  • Max | Design Shard (October 27, 2008)

    Wow i never knew this, hmm i think alot of people still put flags to show language is it the standard now?, im was going to put a language selector on my site and this will definatly help as to how to go about doing it differently.

  • Dan Atkinson (October 27, 2008)

    I’m not really that fussed to be honest.

    Being British, I get people using several different names for my country. United Kingdom, Great Britain and England. Invariably, when any of these are chosen, the selected flag is the Union Jack (which doesn’t apply to England, as it has the St. George’s Cross).

    It doesn’t help that our nation goes to the Olympics as Great Britain (which does not include Northern Ireland – the full name for the UK is "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland").

    So, no, I’m not insulted when people use the wrong flag, or label my nation incorrectly. But it does highlight a degree ignorance on the part of the developer.

    Also, if you have alt tags on flags, then any confusion can quickly be overcome if you hover over it. :)

  • Rob (October 27, 2008)

    thanks for the heads up! l would never have thought about that, but it really makes sense. :)

  • Marco (October 27, 2008)

    There are many articles written about this subject, sharing the same opinion:
    (Just the first two Google hits)

    My opinion:
    Hard to tell. Many people "accept" the fact that many sites display "language change" displayal as a flag (even though it’s not really correct). Also, flags are more "visible" (because of the colours) than text. Another point is that customers / clients "want" to have flags.

    One of the things I implemented (Maybe not the best):
    Instead of using a flag or the whole language name, I use the abbravations for the language.
    EN = English
    FR = French
    etc. etc.

    I don’t know what the best solution is.

  • Eva Vesper (October 27, 2008)

    I never thought about it that way but especially when a country has more that one official language…how do you know what the flag is representing?

    But those little flags just annoy me for some reason. I like Marco’s idea of using EN, FR, or some sort of standard language abbreviation.

    Thanks Janko for the good info :)

  • Dmitry (October 27, 2008)

    I think for a website in two or three languages flags can work. They provide a very succinct and elegant interface element because of their compact size and it is usually evident what they do because a lot of sites use them. So a company operating in 3 countries could put up 3 flags — I don’t see how it would cause any confusion. So I think in many cases it can work, provided the are only a couple of choices, the countries have clear national languages and the flags are distinct.

    But I agree with your points. What flag should you use for English if you have both, UK and US visitors? :)

  • Raul (October 27, 2008)

    yeah, id any day prefer selecting a plain text link for english over the flag of either US or UK

  • Jin (October 27, 2008)

    I prefer how Wikipedia and Flickr do it in their footer area: each language choice is written in their native language.

    If you think about how people really use the language choice, the writing of their own language would pop out to them the most. This avoids the confusion when using a national flag that may cover more than one language, or the similarities between flag designs.

  • John Shimek (October 27, 2008)

    I like the idea of writing the languages in that language, but I offer one more thing. If you are going to have your website in multiple languages, go the extra mile and get the locale set in the browser and automatically serve up the website in the correct locale.

    Then if they want to change language after that, they can.

    Also, I like the flag next to our names in your comments considering the topic:)

  • Milica (October 27, 2008)

    I have to agree with John Shimek. If you want the content in several languages, change the locale, but the flags are annoying. I mean the language flags not the ones next to our names :D

  • John McCollum (October 27, 2008)

    With regards to point number one of your article, someone with colour blindness would have even more difficulty differentiating the flags – leading to the unfortunate situation where the user is stuck reading a foreign language, unable to tell which flag they should be clicking!

    Good article, I thoroughly agree.

  • Thomas | Santhos (October 27, 2008)

    I think you should use small flags in combination with the name of the countries. Leaving the flags behind might cause that people have to search for a language-switch. Just showing one flag somewhere in the top right corner with the countryname on the right side and some sort of dropdown llist to show the other countries. That’ll be my approach I guess.

  • Asheesh Soni (October 28, 2008)

    Did you know India is a union of (28+7) states, each with its own language or two? Well, officially, there are 22 languages. Twenty Two!

    So how do you represent these languages with one flag? Obviously you can’t.

    You are right in saying that there is no ‘best solution’ for every possible website, but a drop down with language names seems to be the best choice for most of them. Google uses a language drop down instead of flags.

    Just my 2 cents.

    BTW. I find your web design tips (on / jQuery / css) pretty useful at work. Keep up the good work!

  • Janko (October 28, 2008)

    Huh, so many opinions :)

    Dan: Alt tags should be provided always, but if we take the flags from this post, users would have to hover 6 flags to ensure they’ll click on right one. This might be annoying for them.

    Marco, Eva: abbreviations are useful for someone who know what they represent. But I believe that it could confuse many users.

    Dmitry: A few flags – only if they are not similar :)

    Jin: I also like Wikipedia and Flickr implementation. That (or drop down list) would be my choice.

    John, Milica: That’s excellent idea, I prefer doing it that way. Regarding flags in comments – that’s a brilliant blogengine feature. And thanks for the comment, Milica ;-)

    John: Exaclty!

    Thomas: I think that dropdown should be enough. Top area (possibly top right corner) is a common place for language switcher and users would look there first. So they’ll find it in any way.

    Asheesh: You gave excellent example. When it comes to this topic, people usually think about English language first (sometimes – only). But this should be more general in order to be applied to any case.

  • PK (October 28, 2008)

    I can’t imagine people would be unable to recognize the flag of their home country. Maybe to foreigners those flags look very similar but then if it was a foreigner looking at them, they wouldn’t be trying to choose one of those languages.

  • João Oliveira (October 28, 2008)

    [quote]Hmm, I DO speak English, but this is not the flag of my country. I hate when I see this! I might not know all the flags, and then what?[/quote]

    From where I stand, the flags are for the languages, not for the country of origin of the user. ;-)

    And if he doesn’t know all the flags, the site should provide a title on the flag, so when the mouse hovers, the language is displayed. :)

  • Webseiter (October 28, 2008)

    I never really thought about it in depth, though I came across the point where it didn’t seem to be a good idea to use flags quite some times.

    So I thing yes, you are right. It get’s even worse with countries with more than one language. What language would the Canadian flag stand for?

  • Janko (October 28, 2008)

    PK: If flags are very similar (take Netherlands and Luxembourg for example) people might not be able to recognize them. Especially people with disability/color blindness.

    João: Hmm, semantically, flag do represent a country, not a language.
    Yeah hovering can be done, but it might be a hassle for users and is not straightforward.

    Webseiter: Exactly!

  • Tephlon (October 28, 2008)

    Ironically you have these little flags to represent my country… I’m Dutch but I live in Portugal… what now? (I’m choosing current country…)

    This is something that annoys me a bit in the language choice dropdown for google.

    The list is in the local language that google detected, based on IP-range or Operating System. So, when I first came here I had to go through a drop down of 60+ language choices. In portuguese. Now "Dutch" is "Nederlands" in Dutch. It’s "Holandês" in Portuguese.

    Likewise "English" is "Inglês" in Portuguese.
    So instead of being able to skip to English with a press of the E-key, I had to search around for it.

    As for your points:
    1) "It can be very confusing"
    I highly doubt I will *ever* confuse my country’s flag for the Croatian or Russian Flag. As for the Luxemburgian flag: The only time I would see that flag on a Site would either be a Luxemburgian site, or a BeNeLux site (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourgh have this kind of loose affiliation) where the choice between the Dutch and the Luxemburgian flag would be obvious to me. (The lighter blue would give it away.) Nor do I think that a Slovanian would EVER confuse the Slovakian flag with his own.

    2) "It could insult" …
    True. Then again, If you’re insulted by a design choice….

    3) "It could mess up your design"
    If you’re a crappy webdesigner/developer, maybe.

    If you design a site with space for 6 or more flags you should really be putting in a drop down menu.

    If your market includes Canada, with it’s 2 official languages, and you’re using flags, that’s just stupid.

    And if you’re using flags because your client told you so, even though it’s a bad choice, you need to educate your client. :-# (Tell them good interface design equals happy visitors which translates to more money.)

    I’ve used several ways: Flags (A UK flag for English, a Portuguese Flag for Portuguese. (It was a European website.)) , "En, De, Pt" for English, German and Portuguese respectively and a dropdown menu for 6 languages. It all boils down to using what is appropriate.

    (Sorry for the giant comment.) :D

  • Jens (October 28, 2008)

    Each language choice written in their native language is always the best.

  • Janko (October 28, 2008)

    Tephlon: Don’t apologize for the giant comment. :)

    [quote]Likewise "English" is "Inglês" in Portuguese. [/quote]
    Like I said in the article, for me, only language name in native language is acceptable.

    [quote]I highly doubt I will *ever* confuse my country’s flag for the Croatian or Russian Flag[/quote]
    Believe it or not, people do get confused. The older ones (like our fathers), people with disabilities and so on.

    [quote]And if you’re using flags because your client told you so, even though it’s a bad choice, you need to educate your client.[/quote]
    Totally agree.

    Regarding flags in comments here – it is a completely different case. The point here is to tell other people where are you from or , to be more precise, how do you feel. You could choose Netherlands as well. ;-)

  • Daniel (October 28, 2008)

    I guess I was the only one who clicked thinking this would be about enum flags and choosing between C# and VB?:)

  • Sverri Olsen (October 28, 2008)

    I both agree and disagree.

    I agree, because of the reasons you give in your entry here. One thing you didn’t mention (which I suppose could fall under your first point, is that colour-blind people can have a problem with the flags).

    I disagree, however, because I find they can be extremely helpful [i]in certain situations[/i]. Take a Danish website, for example. If you have a Norwegian and Swedish version of the website also, then using their flags does not add any confusion at all. It’s very clear what you mean by it.

    Dispite all this, I’ve always prefered clearly laying it out in text, perhaps with a small flag icon next to it. It makes it as clear as it possibly can become, and if you’re a "visual" user, the icons might help you along–and if you’re not (or if you’re colour-blind) then you can fall back on the text.


  • João Oliveira (October 28, 2008)

    Tephlon: yeah, portuguese is a bit complicated language. Too many details and little things to annoy. But Janko is right. Languages should always be in their native name. Like country names.
    But it’s a fine country! :D

    As for the canadian flag, once again you are confusing the country with the language. There is no canadian language. So, if you want french, you put France’s flag. If you want English, you put UK’s flag.

    Obviously, there are more countries speaking french or english, but those are the "mother-lands" of those languages.
    Same with portuguese from Portugal (which many sites refer to with an brazilian flag).

    As for the position of the flags, you can always do something like :D

  • LPent (October 28, 2008)

    Why not simply use ISO abbreviations for languages. Perhaps even in the format as Windows uses it to indicate keyboard languages (blue square with 2-letter language code)?

  • Denis (October 28, 2008)

    I think it should be done like on Wikipedia, in left sidebar, list of languages written in languages themselves and sorted alphabetically.

  • Calvin Froedge (October 28, 2008)

    This gets really annoying, especially when you live in the United States and you have to click on the British flag to get English. LOL. I’m sure it’s the same for the British people on sites that only have the American Flag.

  • Goran (October 29, 2008)

    The best solution IMHO for language choice is drop down list box. Flags are confusing. I don’t even know how the flag of my country looks like. I know it’s a shame but I always have to think for a few seconds if it is red-white-blue or blue-white-red.

  • Janko (October 29, 2008)

    LPent: Not all the people know the abbreviations, and this is the reason why this might be even more confusing than flags.

    Goran: I totally agree. :D

  • huckle (October 29, 2008)

    Simple, use the language’s own word for itself – English for english, Francais for French, Deutsch for german …

  • Mark Kordon (October 31, 2008)

    The way i would do it, is simply showing the flags name when hovering.
    Like at

  • Andy Towler (October 31, 2008)

    I blogged about this a while back and came to a similar conclusion –

    Flags bad.

    Name of language written in the language good.

  • nihowma (October 31, 2008)

    I don’t see anyone mentioning the political ramifications of using a political flag–say you want something in Tibetan or Taiwanese–what will the mainland Chinese think about this?

    Poor design is really just part of the problem, Flags are not really distinct entities for language choice–they come with all sorts of symbolic and political baggage.

    Sony [or samsung, I forget] got in hot water with the Chinese authorities a few years ago because their phone menu had a flag in it for the language choice–yeah it looks sexxy but it cost them the rights to do business in a huge market because of a design consideration [1 year I think].

    I whole heartedly agree that having an unseemly drop-down will prevent the issue with all the languages you support in the native language is the way to go. If you only have one region your site is in, and they don’t care about the flag-as-politics-issue then go for it, but if you plan to scale the site or interface beyond a small set then really consider a global audience from the get-go.

    I will see if I can find the note about the cell phone menus, it’s a lesson best learned from others–imagine if the site got blocked by the great firewall of China? or if the company the site is for is barred from all business in your target country? That’s should at least serve as a major disincentive to using flags, including the fact that so many of them look alike, they aren’t meant to represent language and are fraught with political symbolism…

  • Janko (October 31, 2008)

    nihowma: interesting points, I didn’t think about it…

  • Daniel (November 2, 2008)

    I must admit I haven’t thought about this much, but I agree: using flags for language choice doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases. For instance in Finland we have two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Despite this a lot of sites use the Finnish flag for Finnish and the Swedish flag for Finnish, even if it’s only meant for Swedish-speaking Finns. Silly!

    However, if a website (an ecommerce site, for instance) has different stores for different countries, using flags does make sense, as on

  • Cole (November 2, 2008)

    Interesting debate. I would argue for the use of flags supplied alongside their text equivalents (like you have done for your 6 examples). We really shouldn’t be relying on either alone.

    @Dan (2nd comment)

    Couple of things – alt attributes (at the risk of sounding a pedant it is an alt attribute not an alt tag) shouldn’t be relied on to provide (hover) tool tips.
    This attribute exists to provide descriptions of images for those who cannot access that information visually (see That the alt information for an image appears when hovered on/over in IE is a misuse of this attribute within that browser.

    Secondly, Team GB does include Northern Ireland – it is just that Northern Irish competitors can elect to play for Ireland if they choose.

  • snlr (November 3, 2008)

    I think you’re forgetting the pros of flags. First of all, if you choose a flag next to a name of a person, many people are also offended, namely the minorities living in countries they don’t identify with or are oppressed by.

    Your first argument is not very strong, in my opinion. I think only someone not from these countries can bluntly state these flags look very similiar. Of course they <i>do</i> look very similiar, but I for on am certain somebody from Russia or the Netherlands, if presented with all those flags, will need about a nano second to click on "his".

    That bad choices or placements of images ruin a design is a no-brainer and has nothing to do with flags or languages.

    I fully agree that it’s a bad idea to associate signs for languages and flags for countries in the first place. But as you are presenting it here, the argument it is rather shallow. The musing of how to achieve certain goals by different means is missing. For instance, if you’re creating a site <i>targetted at people living in French</i>, it can be a good idea to show a flag (french) for them, and another (english?) for <i>anybody else</i>. Especially for a commercial site, the people not clicking on the French flag for personal reasons and the people clicking on it because they think it symbolizes the language French both can be counted quite accurately and the miss and loss can be calculated.

  • Valamas (November 4, 2008)

    totally agree with the article. Flags are bad. they represent countries, not languages. If you lived in california and spoke spanish, would you click on the flag of Spain? Silly. Even worse, Americans thinking they are going to a Brisih site and thinking, "No, I want to view the U.S. site".

    It looks more profession to have the text in the language
    "Click here for English"
    "Klik hier voor het Nederlands"
    "Scatti qui per italiano"
    "为简体中文点击这里" (Simp Chinese)

    It can look rather cool having chinese, arabic etc listing down the page.

  • Attilio Viscido (November 5, 2008)

    I agree with you. This is a great post. I’ll replace all the flag on my future websites with text link or lists. Thanks for the suggest :D:D

  • Yves (November 7, 2008)

    Flags represent countries. Countries are not identical to languages. Right, that’s the first thing to understand. Still I don’t see the situation as bad. Flags just do a better job at quick recognition. Instead of reading a bunch of words, some of which you may not even know how to pronounce, you can just scan for familiar colours and shapes. It may be critical at Wikipedia where articles can easily be available in 20+ languages, but for small sites in languages that can be assigned a more or less representative country and whose flags are distinct enough, I don’t see any problem with that.

    The language name is "German", the country’s name is "Germany". In Austria and parts of Switzerland they also speak German, but a) it’s not the majority and b) the language name and country name are less similar. You wouldn’t use a flag of Canada, but instead one for the English language (I prefer the UK flag over the US flag, but that’s personal attitude – if you don’t distinguish between the different ‘sublanguages’) and one for French (obviously France’s). On sites available in English, German, French, maybe Spanish and like Greek, I don’t see any confusion with country flags.

    I’d recommend using more precise flags, though. The fam³ flags are strongly designed, they all have the same dimensions and the recognisable area is reduced by that 2px shiny border. The Italian flag right above is very well recognisable, but it’s harder with the Australian further up. My source for country flags is always Wikipedia, I grab their large image from the country’s article and scale it down to like 19×12 pixels, keeping the aspect ratio as close as possible.

  • Janko (November 14, 2008)

    Cole, good point regarding alt attributes.

    snlr: I have to disagree with you.

    [quote]First of all, if you choose a flag next to a name of a person, many people are also offended, namely the minorities living in countries they don’t identify with or are oppressed by. [/quote]

    First of all – readers choose a flag on my blog, so I don’t see why anyone would be offended by this. If you live in Serbia or if you feel like you are Serbian, you can choose Serbian flag. What is offensive here?

    Second, Even if you belong to a minority, you actually LIVE in a proper country with it’s flag. As I see it it has nothing to do with languages nor the usability.

    Third, Again, why use flags? You can make choice between "French" and "International"? I would rather identify with "international" than with the English flag, simply because I don’t live in UK.

    Valamas: Exactly!

    Yves: I don’t like when I have to scan through a bunch of small images looking for Seriban flag (or English).

  • markus (November 25, 2008)

    This is a thing I’ve never thought at. But actually it’s completely true.
    But there is still more! My flag in this comment is the spanish one, but I live in Barcelona (actually I’m from Andorra, but you have not the flag here ;)) and here we speak catalan. Sometimes it’s hard to asociate poeple with their country or language and, as you said in the 2nd topic, it can insult.

  • Janko (November 25, 2008)

    Markus: That’s right for Catalan language (I know there are differences between Catalan and Spanish, but I don’t know how much exactly are they different). The only difference between comment form on my blog and language choice is that when you choose the country on this contact form, you actually choose the country you live in.

  • Yves (November 26, 2008)

    Catalan is a language, Spain is a country. You speak Catalan in parts of Spain, and you are from Spain, so using the country flag to indicate a country is perfectly okay, right? I could insist on the Bavarian or Franconian "flag", but Germany’s is okay, too. ;-)

    I always thought that people can scan distict images faster than read letters. So I really am convinced that selecting English from (de, en, fr, es) goes faster with flags than with letters or longer words. This may of course be different for 10+ languages to select from. Still here I often search the list of language names twice: For the English and for the native translation of the language name which are sorted in at different positions in a list – so it be sorted at all.

    PS: I got ~80 notification e-mails from this blog last night, but there are only 2 new replies. Is there somethign wrong with it?

  • Ejaz (November 28, 2008)

    Great post! Janko
    Let me highlight the other side of the coin

    One benefit of Flag we are forgetting is, it is very eye catching. You instantly know that where the language choices are.

    It is better to first understand the situation. If a website has 2 or 3 language choices, and the flags are not confusing with respect to associated languages. e.g. In case of English, French and German the flags of UK(or a combined US-UK flag), France and Germany can be used to represent language. see this for an example .

    But a drop down list is definitely a better choice, when
    1- Choices of Languages are many
    2- Flags are not easy to distinguish
    3- Flags does not represent the exact language
    Also the languages should be labeled in native language text (like wikipedia)

  • Dave (December 17, 2008)

    "Never" is a bit harsh… I used flags on a couple of sites just recently for a few reasons.

    1) There wasn’t the space for text (and drop-downs aren’t eye catching enough)

    2) I knew all 5 countries had 1 main language and distinct flags.

    3) What language do you write the language names in if you use text? Mix them up as each in their own and you risk the user not realising what the list is they are looking at. Do you know the Czech for "Czech"? Or even the Welsh for "Welsh"? Cymraeg doesn’t mean a lot to most other nations.

    My suggestion is go ahead and use flags, they are much more effective than text, but use Alt and Title tags to include the language name in it’s native tongue on hover. This way you provide a simple interface with the required and targeted depth given on further action by the user. Flags therefore can’t be confused and multi-language nations can see which language they are picking.

  • Janko (December 17, 2008)

    Yves: [quote]Catalan is a language, Spain is a country. You speak Catalan in parts of Spain, and you are from Spain, so using the country flag to indicate a country is perfectly okay, right?[/quote] That’s right but the point is that it represent a country, not a language.

    Ejaz: [quote]But a drop down list is definitely a better choice, when
    1- Choices of Languages are many
    2- Flags are not easy to distinguish
    3- Flags does not represent the exact language [/quote]
    That’s right, and that’s probably in most of the cases

    Dave: language names in the languages themselves is the key. That way I can easily recognize "Srpski" if I look for my language, for example. I don’t need to know what Czech or any other languge means at all.

  • Mazu (January 3, 2009)

    Well Janko i have also problems with your country flag:)It’s similar with NL flag.Jebote haman ista ko ud nizozemske:)

  • fotomanijak (February 23, 2009)

    I was surfing your site, I was drown to this post, cause you are using the Serbian flag in the tile of the post. But as you can see the flag next to my choice in the Country menu is different – it isn’t updated ;)
    So that can be one of the problems, flags and countries are changing.

    Using flags in the design is a bad idea cause someone has stated cause some languages are used in different countries. Austria, Germany, Switzerland for German lang – they are not the same, but quite similar. Or like Serbian and Croatian…

    So vote for not using countries flags.

  • stuart (March 6, 2009)

    I’m busy trying to work out how to do this in a site of mine. I have about 6 different translations and I’ve installed a drop down menu. Unfortunately I’m fitting it in to an existing standardised design and have a lot of restrictions. On my site there will be a number of people who may have a few words of English who need to be able to navigate to the language drop down. I am not allowed to put in any detection scripts (although these are not necessarily helpful anyway). The only solution I have is to use a small flag AND the name in that language. The flag draws attention, people realise that the option exists, and then can use the drop down to find their language.

    As people have mentioned there are a number of problems with this route, but mainly because it has not been standardised. For example, I have to put in a link to Arabic. What flag do I use for Arabic? I’ve found one which is supposed to represent the language but at that size it cold be construed as a number of other flags (fortunately all Arabic speaking countries). I could also use the "Arab League" flag which covers a number of countries. Because this is not standard I don’t know which to use. People shouldn’t get lost as I’ve included the language name, but I don’t want to confuse people….

    The other issue I have is with Chinese. With simplified Chinese and full Mandarin Chinese which flag should you use? The People’s Republic of China flag is often associated with simplified, but what about Mandarin? The Republic of China has Mandarin as their official language. The relations between these two are not very good as I’m sure you are aware. It would be quite easy to insult someone by assigning the incorrect flag.

    These are the problems I can see. I don’t believe it is a problem with most languages though. I’m an English speaker but not from the UK (am here now though…). If I see a Union Jack or American flag I immediately know that I can understand that. I do not expect to see a South African flag (another country with a ridiculous number of official languages…11 at last count). I have seen the RSA flag used to represent Afrikaans while it would be technically more appropriate to use it for Xhosa (largest percentage of mother-tongue speakers). These are the grey areas. I think that having a problem with a German flag representing German is a little silly. Likewise with French or Russian or any country from which the name of the language clearly stems.

    Okay, this is getting a little long :)
    Basically I was wondering what people thought about my solution. Flags to be eye catching and indicate that there are other options. A drop down menu holding each language name written in it’s own language and text.
    I had thought of only having the Union Jack next to "English" and no flags after that but my employer is quite keen on having it all matching up.
    What do you think?

  • stuart (March 6, 2009)

    A further thought. I think people need to think about why they are including other languages. Generally it is to embrace the people of that language and the attitude they they should just have to take what they get is just contradictory….

  • Bert (March 8, 2009)

    After thinking about this for a while now and having a problem with it on two of my sites, I have come to a practical conclusion:
    a) A list of language-names in the actual language would be best,
    b) people often don’t see the list of languages, but _expect_ a country flag.

    So, the solution would be to come up with an eye-catching icon that represents language-choice to be displayed next to the list (or a link to a list).

    How about having a contest somewhere?

  • Janko (March 8, 2009)

    fotomanijak: Good points!

    stuart: Arabic and Chinese are very good examples of how confusing it can be. In your particular case..I would try to insist on names only (although I know it’s not always possible)

    Bert: that’s similar to what stuart described. Arabic, Chinese…?

  • Bert (March 23, 2009)

    @ Janko:

    It is not the same. I am referring to a pictogram kind of solution that -if it were adopted- would be universal (much like the rss-feed icon for example)
    Someone is already trying this at, but although I agree with the concept, I dislike this pictogram they have chosen. I don’t think this will ever be adopted as it is non-intuitive.
    (I am sure someone could come up with a simple set of lines that could instantly be recognized as "language" or "speech")

  • Jan (April 19, 2009)

    This is nice. I know what U speak about. I`m Slovakian and really all the flags in most Slavien countries are the same. It`s funny, when people change Slovakian for Slovenian etc. (even without flags)

    Nice blog man.

    All best


  • Marco (June 11, 2009)

    Hi! I do not agree very much both with the article and with the comments.
    The misconcept is that flags in websites are for countries.
    All the comments here seems to be from a developer point of view and not by a visitor’s.

    It’s definitely true that flags have been made for countries and it’s also very true that at that size they are more confusing than everything.

    The point is that a website is not an atlas! A website is a interactive communication media and there is a common agreement that a flag in a website stands for the language, not for the country.

    The fact that there are a number of exceptions, does not diminishes the value of this common belief.

    Wikipedia, Google, an indian website… are all exceptions: how many sites do you know (and how many do you usually read) that have more than 5 languages? With 4+ languages i agree with you that flags are nonsense, but what about 99% of the websites? What about a Croatian Hotel with only Croatian and English? Big colored flags for sure: you see, you click (especially if you do not know Croatian!). A good idea is the name of the language or a localized word beside the flag.

    And come on…. A Canadian website is not using the Canadian flag LOL! It will definitely use the UK and French ones: no one will ever complain because France originated French and UK originated English
    If an American or an Australian feels offense in the UK flag, you should just write beside the flag: "English: and go check your history book" ;-)

    Canadian English is different from American and British English, also Portuguese is different from Brazilian, but that’s not the point. If a website is so international to be read by both countries, it will definitely have a 4+ language list and a professional language translator.
    I don’t see the point in having 4+ languages with such a bad translation, that American and British doesn’t matter! (by the way, go search in YouTube the Italian man who went to Malta LOL )

    So for me it’s a matter of convenience. If the commissioner of the website wants and/or likes flags: use them! Just let him/her think that you’re fulfilling the request and use your skill to overcome the problems :-D

    And if you need a popping icon for 4+ languages don’t use the language pictogram! There is a widely understood one: it’s a flag divided into 4 or 6 segments with each segment containing a different flag. Unfortunately i can’t find an example right now (just put an X on a flag to divide it in 4 parts)

  • DarthVinsus (June 25, 2009)

    A good option is to write the languages options in their own language, for example Español Deutsch English, (Spanish German English)

  • ian t (July 15, 2009)

    Marco said "use the UK and French ones: no one will ever complain because France originated French and UK originated English". In that case the UK flag should not be used to represent English, the English flag should. I hope the Americans, Austrailians, etc can recognise it. What flag do you use for the Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic languages when most people in Ireland and Scotland speak English. The Irish and Scottish flags don’t represent languages. In the case of Lapland covering the north of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and part of Russia, the Sami flag can indeed be used to represent the language of Lapland, but it is not a country. Finland, on the other hand is a country with Finnish, Swedish and Saami speakers. If we are to use the English flag, or the Union Jack, to represent English, should the New Zealand flag represent Maori?

    Flags should not be used to represent languages. It simply shows the website to be ignorant of other countries and cultures and causes confussion and offense to those that do not neatly fit into the web designers narrow view of the world. The name of the language in its native form is quickly identifiable.

    So for a website in Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, English, Norwegain, Swedish, Finnish and Saami what flags do you use? Would this not be clearer:

    Gàidhlig, Gaeilge, English, Norsk, Suomi, Svenska, Saami

  • Marco Aurélio (September 8, 2009)

    Yes! THAT’S RIGHT!
    I really dislike when a enter in a website and the language portuguese is represented by Portugal flag. Here, in Brazil we talk portuguese too! There is a kind of uncomfortable thing, I can’t explain… But is nice when, like wikipedia, the reference is the language. Even when I saw something that regionally I can’t understand, I know that’s from Portugal, and we spoke the same language.
    I guess the country segregates us, but the language connects us!