You Should Never Use Flags For Language Choice

Flags Are Not Appropriate For a Language Choice

Many people think it is pretty cute these days to use a flag for a language choice when they are sending over a quick message to work colleagues or to a friend or family member. Many people look at it as a simple short-hand that helps them avoid having to spell out the entire word for whichever language they are referring to.

On top of that, they often see it as a way to add a little fun to the message that they are trying to send. You might wonder what could possibly be so bad about that. However, it is a bad choice to use a flag for a language.

People Get Offended

When you apply a flag to stand in for a language, you are inadvertently implying that everyone from that particular country that speaks that language. That is a very broad generalization, and it may make some people uncomfortable. For example, it turns out that there are nearly 800 languages ​​spoken in the country of Indonesia!

That is a huge diversity of different native tongues for people who all live in the same country. Thus, you can probably see why some people would get offended if you applied the Indonesian flag as shorthand for a specific language that you were thinking of.

Flags Change Over Time

There are plenty of examples throughout history of flags changing over time. It could be because of a war or some other part of history that people don’t necessarily want to be reminded of.

Unfortunately, the flag icons that are available to place on your chat or some other communication may not be the most up-to-date. They only get updated from time to time, and there are many mistakes that one might make if they assume that the flag that they are using is correct for the intention that they have for it.

You can imagine the confusion and even anger that someone might feel if they see a flag that represents something very different from what their country is today being used to describe their country.

You can imagine the anger that might boil over in some people when they are shown an old flag that does not have the same meaning that it once did. You absolutely need to do everything in your power to avoid causing a situation like this to boil over.

Flags May Be Seen as Immature

There are contexts when it is simply not appropriate to send icons such as flags. They may come off as an immature form of communication, and you certainly don’t want to put yourself in that spot. If you send flag icons within certain business contexts, you might appear to be making some kind of joke that the rest of the group simply does not understand.

This will leave people feeling isolated, and that is certainly not your intention either. Thus, you need to think carefully about how you want to balance your desire to be spontaneous and interesting with your need to keep things as professional as possible as well. You can make both of those things a reality, but you need to be very careful about how you go about doing so.

The Icons Can Throw Off Your Design Scheme

If you are in the middle of designing a website and you attempt to use a flag icon to represent a language, you might cause some problems with the coding. The codes are not necessarily designed to handle icons like this, and you may discover that the website you were working on simply cannot handle what you have thrown at it at that moment.

As funny as that sounds, it is the reality of the situation. You could literally overload the system by simply trying to add something a little fun and interesting to the mix.

There are programmers who spend a considerable amount of time just trying to figure out what they got wrong in their code only to determine that adding the flag icons was a bit too much for their website. You don’t want to have to take everything down and start from scratch all because of an honest mistake, but you may be put in that spot if you aren’t careful.

There are important lines in coding that you cannot cross, and the flag icons are one line that you just don’t want to mess with at all.

Keep Your Design Clean

Finally, you may want to avoid using the flag icons because you would like to keep your design clean and crisp. If every other part of your design uses regular words, then why would you throw in some icons to indicate a language? That could throw off your entire scheme and make your website appear as though it has been haphazardly thrown together.

That is less than ideal and will leave viewers with the wrong impression about who you are as a creator. Do NOT let yourself get dragged into that trap. You can do better, and you deserve to provide the best possible experience for anyone who might take some time out of their day to check out what your site is all about. Don’t disappoint them in any way.

Flag icons are pretty (like fam-fam-fam icon set). But the 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.

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:







Photo by nofrills

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, 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.

It could insult

A 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 the 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.

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 it would 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 a drop-down list.

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


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