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Should you add flags to represent languages?

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Flags are a widespread design choice when it comes to representing a language, they have become some sort of standard. But is this a good practice overall?

Buckle up, because I have some explaining to do!

Flags are unique to a country. That’s because the language spoken in that country can travel and be spoken across multiple borders. 

A common motive for using flags to represent language is undoubtedly because it catches the eye. It’s an easy way for a website visitor to see you have language options, but that’s really where things end. 

The point of contention when using flags to depict language options is that you may well end up alienating your audience before you’ve even allowed them to select their language of choice. 

So, I’ll take you through the reasons why it’s probably not the best idea to represent languages with flags. 

Special note: Miguel Sepulveda, Global Localization Manager at King, was kind enough to give us some basic points for this article. He discusses good localization practices over on his popular blog yolocalizo.com.

Reason # 1: One country is not one language 

First and foremost and what I touched on in the intro…a flag is purely a symbol of a country. So, you may end up confusing a website visitor because of it. 

Take Latin America as an example. Spanish is the main language of this region, however, if you use the Spanish flag to represent the 16 different countries that speak this language you’ll be alienating them all. 

The Spanish flag can only represent Spain. What about the variations in the Spanish language spoken throughout Latin America. Spanish spoken in Mexico is very different from Spanish spoken in Spain. 

If you’re targeting countries within Latin America, but using a Spanish flag to depict that language option, it will lead to mass confusion for your new audience as they simply don’t associate their language with this country. It’s clearly not the best choice for users outside of Spain. 

I don’t need to stop at that example either…What about the English language. Do you choose to represent it with the American, British or Australian flag? And those are just 3 countries with English as their official language, what about the others! Languages aren’t tied to one country – it wouldn’t be great personalization to use the American flag to represent English language options and vice versa. 

You’re likely to create more confusion using this method of language representation. Why should a Brazilian select the flag of Portugal to get content in his native language? It’s even quite possible that a Brazilian doesn’t know the flag of Portugal. And, how would French-speaking countries such as Luxembourg, Belgium or Switzerland feel about the use of the French flag?

Reason #2: One language is not one country 

Following the same vein, one language is also not one country. There are several countries where this applies, think of India with 22 with official languages spoken, Switzerland with 4, Luxembourg with 3, Belgium with 2, and the list goes on!  

There are numerous examples where a country has more than 1 official language so a flag wouldn’t suitably represent all the languages contained within that specific country. 

So as clearly outlined, using a Swiss flag to represent the languages spoken in that country just wouldn’t work as which language would you choose to use? 

Reason #3: Cultural sensitivity 

The third reason is that of cultural sensitivity – whilst a subject that doesn’t impact many countries, it’s still relevant to mention. 

Take Taiwan which classifies itself as a country, however, China states Taiwan is a region of China.

If you choose to put a Taiwanese flag on your website you could be seen to be taking a particular political stance on the matter which as a company is likely something you don’t wish to take part in if you’re targeting a Chinese audience.

Reason #4: UX

Another potential reason not to use flags is that flags don’t work well from a UX perspective.  

It can become messy pretty quickly. For example, if you launch your product in certain countries and then you decide to scale and launch in new markets, soon you’ll realize that a page with all those flags and colors is not very intuitive to use. 

It’s confusing, it has an impact on usability especially because some flags might be very similar to others when viewing on a smaller screen, e.g. mobile.

So, what is the right way to display languages?  

So whilst that’s my opinion on the subject there are of course always going to be those that disagree. In particular, those cases where the content is specific to that country e.g. a company may only be doing business in Spain and Portugal, so it can make sense for them to depict this using flags. 

But, as we’ve seen above there are mainly cases where flags just simply won’t work to demonstrate a language without causing confusion, offense, or simply impossible when a country has multiple languages. 

There are however some good practices for displaying languages. Here is how some of our clients have designed their buttons.

  1. Always write the name of the language instead of using a flag 
Screenshot of P-Tech website showcasing language switcher
  1. Show the name of the language in its local language format
Screenshot of the Bluetooth homepage, showing its language switcher.
Screenshot of Spotify homepage with language switcher

…or use the language code.

Screenshot of Murad homepage and language switcher
  1. Place the language-switcher in a location that’s easy to find for the website visitor, such as the menu or the bottom right corner. 

A well-designed language-switcher is a key component of an international website. It provides personalization to your website visitors, allows them to find their language options quickly, and ultimately leads to more business! 

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