Flags are not languages

What’s wrong with this list?

Here’s a website that I came across a while ago that beautifully expresses something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time in web and software design: flags are not languages.

Take a look at the example image above which was taken from the Visit Dubai website. Can you tell what’s wrong with it? (Apart from the languages not being listed in alphabetical order.)

What is good is that the various languages are written in the local language, for example Deutsch rather than German, Español rather than Spanish.

But why is Deutsch illustrated with the German flag and Español with the Spanish flag?

German is the official language in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. How can speakers in those other countries be represented by the political flag of Germany?

Spanish is the official language of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The Spanish flag alone can’t possibility convey that international diversity. Neither can it justifiably represent Castilian Spanish in a country that also speaks Euskera (the Basque language), Galician and Catalan.

If you have any interest in this area, have any requirements for providing web or software in various languages do check out the Flags are not languages blog. It is packed with loads of great ideas and advice including best practice for presenting languages:

  • Always use the name of the language in its local format.
  • Try autodetect the user’s language where possible (although in my experience be careful with this—I’m learning Russian, I have activated Russian as the third language on my PC after British and American English, and I often get websites presenting in Russian first)
  • Provide a clear way of changing languages.
  • Don’t use flags unless the content is country specific.

I’m a fan of Axialis icons and icon software.

They offer a set of country flags, languages and localisation icons for use on websites and in software applications. I like some of their language icons and their speech bubbles but their local language format offerings are limited.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Former Scrum master at Safeguard Global, Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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