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    Flag as a symbol of language – usability or convenience?

    23rd October 2006

    Probably a month ago I came across this forum thread (which, in turn, references original article), where the idea of using a country flag on the web-site to represent one of the site’s language versions is discussed in terms of ‘stupidity’ and ‘insult’. Fortunately, in the forum thread, there are also sound comments, which do show the inconsistency of the idea that flags must not be used as language shortcuts.

    Adding my five cents, I should note the following:

    • binding a country flag to a language is OK, as long as it is not an ambiguous binding. Language is one of the distinctive features, which allows to tell apart nations, thus using national country flag is fine. The case of multi-national countries can also be easily handled: for example, Ukraine is a multi-national country, with over 20 nationalities residing on its territory; over 75-80% of all the citizens consider themselves Ukrainians, and the only state language is also Ukrainian; thus, if I see somewhere Ukrainian flag in the “Languages” or whatever section, I will know for sure that if I click that flag, I’ll read the site in Ukrainian. However, one should avoid ambiguity: e.g., in the case of Switzerland (both with multiple nations AND official languages), flag is not an identifier of language. But: I suppose, there is always “the country of language origin”, the flag of which can be used to denote language, and thus author’s claim that “it’s wrong” to bind flag to languages is inconsistent (please comment if you know examples disapproving my point).
    • author argues that flag image “eats” more bandwidth than a text representation of the language. Well, true, but not completely: a small GIF/PNG flag image might take less than 200 bytes, and it will be cached on the first request – all the subsequent page loads will not ask for the flag image. Moreover, 300 bytes is nothing compared to the minimal page size of 40-60 KBytes.
    • author says: ‘In Web documents, an image can (and should) be accompanied with an alternative textual presentation of the same information, the so-called ALT attribute of an IMG element. For languages, this is easy, but then you can in fact ask what you need the image for in the first place.’ Following this lead, web-pages should be cleared from any images. The flag image ‘in the first place’ is needed for faster comprehension of the fact of another language version availability.
    • I am not the “knight of flag-only usage”, language name given in that language is a good solution. But nothing stops from using both flag and language name (in that language) to achieve both fast recognition and disambiguation.
    • ISO language codes are evidently less readable and recognizable than flags, and they can be no less ambiguous. For example, country ISO code for Ukraine (and also TLD – Top Level Domain) is UA, but 2-letter ISO code is ‘uk’ (do not confuse with Great Britain English).
    • Finally, not using language symbols at all (in the way proposed by the author of that article) is not possible. How would then someone inform the visitor that other language versions are available, if the visitor came to a page not through the site’s navigation, but via the search engine?

    That seems to be it. Next time I hope to have a look at the i18n (internationalization) capabilities of Drupal CMS. Stay tuned!


    4 Responses to “Flag as a symbol of language – usability or convenience?”

    1. Pedro Says:

      I’m Chilean and I hate when I see a flag from Spain meaning my language. I think than Spaniards who speak Catalan, Basque or Galician might also dislike that choice. I also think that many Chileans probably don’t know how the flag from Spain looks like.

      Another point is that in many sites English is represented by the American flag, so the symbol is not always the same. This is worse for Spanish, with more than 20 possible flags.

    2. Bogdan Says:


      The first of the points in the post says that “binding a country flag to a language is OK, as long as it is not an ambiguous binding”. The cases of Spanish and also English, French and some other languages aren’t exactly ambiguous (as there’s no trouble in identifying the language behind the flag), but due to their widespread use this can really cause dissatisfaction at minimum, and hostility at maximum. I have to admit that (Spanish language, Chile and Spain are used solely as examples):

      1. if the web-site is about Spain, and is available in several languages, then it can use Spanish flag as a symbol of Spanish language. This shouldn’t pose any problems – just because the site itself is Spain-related
      2. if the web-site is Chilean (about Chile or related to Chile), and has several languages, it might be normal to use Chilean flag as a symbol of Spanish language-version (based on the fact that Spanish is the only official language of Chile)
      3. if the web-site is international (not really related to either Chile or Spain), and has Spanish language available, it would be better to avoid using the flag of Spain/Chile/other countries, as to avoid hurting national feelings. In this case, using language name alone would be best, I think.

      As for the Catalan, Basque and Galician: those languages, to the best of my knowledge, are official in the respective territories of Spain. However, personally I’m not aware of national symbols such as flags for those communities. And the official language and flag for the whole of Spain is Spanish. So I see no problem here. Or am I missing something?

      As for English, the most frequent version I’ve seen is a kind of a “diagonal hybrid” of US/UK flags :). However, I see no ambiguity here. If someone knows English enough to read, then that someone also knows English-speaking countries and their symbols.

      Do we reach an agreement here? :)

    3. johnp Says:

      I’m from Canada, and I am offended every time I see a U.S/U.K flag for English. The English language is, or should be, associated with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., as strongly as with the U.S. and/or the U.K. The same goes for France and the French language. The idea that “country of origin” is a significant consideration is not accepted by everyone. Using a flag icon implies that one thinks it is. The benefit in terms of usability is not worth offending the many people who would disagree. Why not use a neutral alternative like the name or code of the language?

    4. Bogdan Says:


      language codes aren’t easy for the majority of internet users. Web-developers, surely, are quite familiar with such codes, but not ordinary users.

      As for the language name – yes, I do agree it’s the least offending option. The reason to use flags is faster recognition of the fact that there are other language versions available. So it is the choice of the developer/web-master either to sacrifice tolerance or to somewhat hamper the speed of noticing alternative language versions.

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