Flags and languages: Redux (Part I)

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 at 1:12 pm

If you search for ‘using flags to represent languages’, you’ll get a swathe of wisdom as to why this is a really bad idea. This really bothers me whenever I see it; which unfortunately is really quite often. I blogged about a language selection screen in the Steam client last year which again fell into the trap of presenting users with a selection of flag icons in order to choose their language.

I went to the Tate site today and a little UN-style gathering of flags caught my attention.

Tate homepage

What really bothers me about what the Tate have done here is that they’ve obviously put some thought into this design decision, but the logic behind the decision is broken.

They’ve realised that using the Chinese flag for Chinese might be a bit politically sensitive (to say people form Taiwan or Singapore) and that there is no standard recognisable flag for Arabic — so while Arabic and Chinese are presented as the name of their languages, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Japanese and Italian users are given flags.

Swiss users in particular must love this scenario: they must choose the French, German or Italian flags (or stick with the English!).

Why not just list all the languages like you did with Chinese and Arabic?

Tate homepage - broken v fixed

I wonder if there’s some obsession with flags that overrides the logic behind such a decision. A few possible thoughts:

  1. we love flags because they’re graphical and a strong visual metaphor
  2. they take up less space on the screen, therefore are seen as advantageous
  3. they’re seen as ‘instantly recognisable’ therefore being more usable
  4. we don’t want to ‘confuse’ other users by showing scripts/languages they won’t understand

Any other thoughts as to what is behind this enduring phenomena?

The reasons that make flags such powerful and strong symbols are exactly why they’re so bad for representing languages: you are coercing users into identifying with another country in order to proceed to content in their native language.

3 Responses to “Flags and languages: Redux (Part I)”

  1. Good points James. As a scientific society we are lucky in that English is the language of science so we do not have to worry about other languages. However, the points you made apply even more to the use of flags to denote English on other websites or signs. I try not to be fixated on it but I do find it irritating that an English language choice on non-english websites is often portrayed with an American flag. Whereas I would hold out for the Union Flag I can understand that those in Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc might find this as irritating. So just listing the languages by their names is really the only politically acceptable solution (other than to those in China or the USA who, presumably, will fail to understand why their respective flags are not being used!)although perhaps not the most visually pleasing.

  2. James says:

    Thanks for your comment Paul. Don’t get me started on using the US flag for English!

  3. [...] Back in June I wrote about the eternal issue of using flags to represent languages and why this is a fundamentally flawed idea. [...]

Leave a Reply

Current month ye@r day *