Why flags do not represent languages

Flags are symbols that represent
countries or nations.
Flags are symbols that represent countries or nations.
Languages represent a shared method of communication between people.
Languages represent a shared method of communication between people.

Flags are unique to a country or nation: but languages are often spoken across national borders. By using a flag for a language, you may confuse or even offend users.

Consider these examples:

English

Arguably, the flag of England is the most appropriate flag to represent the English language. But how recognizable is the English flag?

However, often the British flag is used to represent English. Within Britain, other languages other than English are spoken — including Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

Often the United States flag is used to represent English — and while the USA has far more English speakers than Britain, English does not originate from the United States.

Furthermore, English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world: it is spoken in countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa to name just a few. How will users from these countries react to an English, British or American flag?

Spanish

The Spanish flag is often used to represent the Spanish language.

However, in Mexico alone there are more Spanish speakers than Spain.

Spanish is also spoken in numerous other countries including Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. There are also a large number of Spanish speakers in the United States — including Puerto Rico. Is a Spanish flag the best choice for users outside of Spain?

French

The French flag is an obvious choice to represent the French language. While most French speakers live in France, French is spoken in many other countries — including Belgium, Ivory Coast and Switzerland.

French is spoken in Switzerland along with other languages — Italian, German and Romansh.

Similarly, in Belgium French is also spoken with other languages — mostly Flemish/Dutch and German in a small minority.

How will users from other French-speaking countries — Belgium or Switzerland especially — feel about the use of the French flag?

Hindi

Hindi is the most popular language in India with over 400 million speakers, but it is only one of 22 official languages of India. There also are over 80 million speakers of Bengali in India and over 70 million speakers of both Telugu and Marathi.

Many other languages share similar issues when combined into a single flag — including Arabic, German and Portuguese. Flags are specific to countries: languages often cross borders.

If you are targeting users from a specific country, then flags are highly appropriate. However, if you’re targeting users of a specific languages, think again before using flags.

Further reading (external sites)

27 thoughts on “Why flags do not represent languages”

  1. The flag of a language should be of the language’s founding country, or continent. Not of the country with the the most speakers.

    1. When is a language considered to be founded? What about languages that developed across borders, or evolved among a diaspora, or whose known founding country has ceased to exist? What is the flag of the European continent? (Hint: It isn’t the flag of the EU.) The African continent? (Not the African Union either.) The Asian, North American,and South American continents? I’m sure you could answer these questions, but I doubt in a way that’s unambiguous and apolitical.

  2. Some interesting points but ultimately I disagree.
    I find that spotting the language change options is often a tricky task if it is just text based, a nice colourful flag however draws my attention.
    True, as a Brit it can make my blood get slightly warm to see the American flag used for such a purpose but think of it in terms of the English being American English, you can expect a few minor words being differently spelled and that is why it is American, and its no problem.
    The British and US flags are instantly recognisable symbols of English.

    1. There are 6909 living languages in the world and only 195 countries.

      Using flags, how would you deal with Democratic Republic of the Congo or China where several living languages originated ?

      Of course flags might do the trick for your projects but the general recommendation not to use flags to designate languages is founded.

  3. Completely agree with Craig. Who cares if Mexico has more Spanish speakers or that English did not originate with my friends on the other side of the Atlantic? Everyone knows what it means and that’s all that matters. I note you don’t suggest a better system.

  4. I am Brazilian, and when I see the Portugal flag representing the Portuguese language, I have to say that I… see no problem! And when I see Brazilian flag… I don’t see problem either!

    The use of flags is so common, even out of internet (user’s guide, touristic guides, language dictionaries, etc.), that nobody would take more than half second to find it.

    1. Yeah, I completly agree. My job as designer is to make the website the easiest to use, and if to do so I need to put flag I will. Now I believe most people think like Leonardo, but the one that feel insulted should probably just relax a bit.

      1. You are obviously not South African, where we have one flag and eleven languages.

        I am faced with the problem of how to represent Afrikaans as a flag other than the South African flag.

  5. Interesting analysis and conclusion. Perhaps the worst offence of all, is using both written and iconic versions side-by side; an American flag on it’s own could be interpreted to mean “American English”, but by placing the American flag next to a label that says “English” it removes all doubt and only stands to irritate an Englishman. (As would labeling the Mexican flag “Spanish”)

  6. Just one small comment, in Belgium we don’t speak Flemish, much as we don’t speak Walloon either. We do speak Dutch (60%) though, and French (40%) and German (0.7%). Thought you might be interested in that little known fact.

  7. I definitely think that some flags could be used for languages, (but these should be flags of the regions where the language originated) for example as noted in other comments, the flag of England for the English language. BUT for the Spanish language the flag of Castile, the historic region of Spain where the Castilian language (Spanish) originated Or better yet, flags should be created *specifically* to represent languages

  8. For Aragonese language, the spanish nationalist towns avoid using the aragonese flag to refer its translation or instruction. Panticosa town is a good example. Another towns such as Echo or regions like Ribagorza avoid saying aragonese language and call it as their variety.

  9. South Africa has 11 languages and exactly one flag.

    This issue of “flags as languages” requires far more attention in web UI

  10. as a people living in Asia, Indonesia to be exact. I found that the UK flag is much representative as a flag. at least I think most Indonesian recognize the UK flag than the England flag.

    However a question here. what is actually the difference between UK, Englang, and Great Britain (GB) ?

    1. Great Britain is an Island, divided between three non-sovereign countries: England, Wales and Scotland.

      UK stands for United Kingdom, and is the sovereign country that is made up of four other non-sovereign countries: Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.

      Therefore: 1) England is part of both Great Britain and the UK, 2) Great Britain is UK territory, 3) Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but not part of Great Britain.

    2. England = England
      Great Britain = England, Wales & Scotland
      United Kingdom = England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland

      England is the country that English originated in. England is on the Island of Great Britain (which it shares with wales and Scotland). England is joined with its neighbouring countries to form the United Kingdom (which includes the 3 countries in Great Britain and also the norther part of the Island or Ireland).

      In the UN the UK has a seat but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not. However, for many sports (eg football), England, wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own teams and the UK does not have a team.

    3. England is one of the four countries of the UK (along with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

      Great Britain is the island which contains England, Wales and Scotland.

      The UK is England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (which is not on the island of Great Britain, but the island of Ireland) together. The full name of the UK is the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

  11. The arguments for NOT using flags for languages are very valid and sound. This website provides some very valuable background and research. Thanks for that.

    I feel I must add some arguments in FAVOR of doing so here too:

    1) Using flags makes it easier and faster for a user to find her own language within a list. Especially in a long list, with a lot of names in weird characters sorted in no particular order. (Because, how-to sort languages when every language is spelled in a different language?)

    2) Countries like Spain, Portugal and China have lend their name to their language, even though it’s spoken elsewhere. There’s a ‘verbal-mental link’ between the nation symbolized and the language spoken. I see the Spanish flag and in my head I ‘hear’ the word «Spain». Then, I hear Spain-ish. People in Brazil speak Portugal-ish, people in Chili speak Spain-ish. And people in Ireland can hangle England-ish very well.

    4) Many smaller countries (without a colonial/imperial past) represent practically the only geographical region where that particular language is spoken: think of Finland, Latvia, Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Vietnam. Here, the link is very valid. And hey, we don’t all live in America, do we?

    5) Flags are eye candy (as stated before)

    6) Rather then a ’translation’ or globe icon, a flag on the top of a website tells me: “Click here to change language”. If I, as a Dutchmen, would end up in (say) Korea on a Korean computer and browse the internet, I would have no clue that “한국어” would mean “Korean” and that I should click it so change the language. However, if there’s a flag in front of it, that would give a strong clue that I should look there to change the language.

    I strongly feel that user friendliness outweighs political correctness. But in some cases, this might not be true. It should be evaluated for every use case again. This website will help in doing so. Although I stick to flags for my personal website. 🙂 I chose to stay naive.

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