"Romanians are smart" campaign and the problem of similar flags

The website Romanians are smart has an interesting and noble objective: change the results associated with “Romanians are…” on Google into something more positive.

If you go to Google and type “Romanians are” in and wait for the autocorrect to kick in and you’ll see for yourself how racist the current results are.

The site encourages users of different languages to click on a link that enters the term “Romanians are smart” into Google (in their language), hopefully moving the more positive search term further up Google’s list of autocorrect options.

On the homepage there are links in English, French and Romanian. These languages are also complimented by flags. Romanian has a Romanian flag and English gets the United States treatment. But as for French, it appears the site has the wrong flag.

Romanians are smart

Light blue on top, white in the middle and red on the bottom — the flag used for French is far more similar to Luxembourg’s flag than that of France’s.


French is spoken in both France and Luxembourg

However, the flag used could also be seen as the Dutch flag — could this flag choice confuse a Dutch user thinking they were accessing content in Dutch?


The Netherlands and Luxembourg share an almost
identical flag but share no common language

Obviously this is probably just a simple design oversight — the French flag is simply upside down. But it still demonstrates the problem with using flags to represent languages.

Continue reading "Romanians are smart" campaign and the problem of similar flags

The Arab League: an appropriate symbol of the Arabic language?

When it comes to flags representing languages, the Arab League is a common choice for representing the Arabic language. Arabic is a shared language between all states: a unique scenario in comparison to similar organisations such as the European Union, African Union and Organization of American States, all of whom have many different languages within their member states.

Arab League
Flag of the Arab League: the seal reads “League of Arab States” in Arabic

What exactly is the Arab League? Quoting a BBC News profile:

“The League of Arab States, or Arab League, is a voluntary association of countries whose peoples are mainly Arabic speaking or where Arabic is an official language.”

There’s obviously a strong relationship between the Arabic language and the Arab League. But how appropriate — really — is the flag of the Arab League in representing the Arabic language?

The Arab League is a political entity, and as the civil agitation around the Arab world in 2011 has demonstrated, international politics are not only complicated but often in a state of flux. At the time of writing, Syria is suspended from the Arab League: and there is much speculation that fellow member-state Yemen may follow. Earlier in 2011, Libya was blocked from the Arab League before having its membership restored in August. In the past Egypt has also been suspended — back in 1979 — and current events in Egypt are also highly volatile.

If Syria and Yemen are suspended from the Arab League, are they suspended from the Arabic language? Of course not. It’s a ridiculous suggestion. But it does illustrate that the relationship between the Arabic language and the Arab League is not an absolute one.

While the Arab League is comprised of countries that share Arabic as a common language, it’s not an absolute representation of all countries where Arabic is spoken: it’s also an official language in Chad, Eritrea and even Israel.

Is there a better flag to represent the Arabic language? Probably not. That’s because flags in essence represent nations, countries and in the case of the Arab League, organisations: they do not represent languages.

Flags change: Libya as an example

For a time, Libya had the honour of being the only country with a flag a single colour. But since 2011 and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has readopted its former flag of 1951 – 1969.

Libyan flag
Flag of Libya
Libyan flag (old)
Previous flag of Libya

Libya’s flag, new and old

In September 2011 the new Libyan flag was raised outside the United Nations. That was almost two months ago — any many websites have since changed their Libyan flag graphics.

Skype, for instance has updated the flag on its Libya page:


However, Rebtel is still a few months behind the change:


Interpol is also showing the old flag — which is not without irony considering most of its Libyan page is about arrest warrants related to the Gaddafi family:

Libya isn’t the only country recently to change its flag. An interesting list at Flags Australia shows many recent flag changes — including the worlds newest country Southern Sudan, Burma and Malawi.

Burmese flag
Flag of Burma (from 2010)
Burmese flag (old)
Previous flag of Burma

Burma’s flag, new and old

If you use flags on your website for any reason — remember they are liable to change. And often, as Libya perfectly illustrates — the reasons for the flag changing can be highly political.

From a user experience perspective, what would a Libyan user make of the new flag on the Skype website and the old flag on the Rebtel website? It would probably depend on their political viewpoint. But regardless, it again highlights how sensitive an issue flags can sometimes be.

Tate Art Galleries: 12 languages, 9 flags

The Tate Galleries in the UK are a word-class collection of galleries and have a great website — with the exception of the language links on the homepage.


The most interesting part of this design choice is that there is obviously a cultural awareness that flags may not properly represent the Arabic and Chinese languages — so these languages are just written in their local equivalents.

But not so for French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Russian or Polish.

Furthermore, the flags are repeated in the content area of the pages these links lead to: of course with the exception of Arabic and Chinese.

(It’s also worth noting the BSL — British Sign Language — link. The hand icon here seems very appropriate for this).

Another issue with the choice of flags for some languages and the language name for others is also simple consistency.

Wouldn’t this design work far better if it just showed the language names?

Simple, consistent and uncontroversial?

Front against language flags

Researching the issues of flags as language in Belgium, designer and researcher Tine Lavrysen sent me through to a brilliant site entitled ‘Front tegen taalkeuzevlaggetjes‘ — or ‘Front against language flags’.

Front against language flags

It prompts the user to select their language by using flags: Dutch, French or English. However the flags chosen are from small countries where the languages are still official — Suriname, Monaco and Ghana respectively. A very clever take on the issue of flags as language.

avaaz.org: simple yet effective multilingual content design

Social activism site avaaz.org is beautifully designed: both visually and experience-wise.

The site is available in 14 languages: each easily accessible from the top banner and presented in their local formats. Furthermore, the site autodetects the users language and redirects them to a localised version (if one is available).

A simple yet very effective way of presenting multilingual content.

The Metropolitan Police: 16 languages, 12 flags

The Metropolitan Police website provides language content in 16 languages other than English: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese. That’s quite a diverse range of content.

Met Police

From the homepage, a neat and attractive row of 12 flags links through to a landing page listing 16 languages.

12 flags, 16 languages: are some flags missing from the homepage?

Let’s follow the link and go to the next page:

The Metropolitan Police

Starting with the positive, each language is displayed in its native name and script (and also repeated in English).

But other than that, this is all wrong. It’s probably the single best example of why using flags for languages is so fundamentally flawed.

The biggest problem on this page is the use of the Indian flag three times for Hindi, Gujarati and Punjabi. With the former, it’s worth noting that there are actually over double the amount of Punjabi speakers in Pakistan (60 million speakers) than in India (27 millon speakers).

Saudi Arabia’s flag has been chosen for Arabic on this page, yet on the homepage the flag of the Arab League has been used.

Arab League
Arab League
Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia

Arab League or Saudi flag — is either an appropriate representation of the Arabic language?

Consistency aside, obviously there’s been some trepidation here about how to represent the Arab language with a flag. More reason, of course, to avoid using any flag for language representation.

A final gripe: the homepage flags, for their inherent flaws, do look rather nice. However, the quality of the flags on the landing page is simply awful (not to mention the poor legibility of the native language names). Give flags some respect and please save them with an appropriate level of quality!

Do you speak American?

While visiting Salzburg, Austria in May 2011, I saw this sign in a shop window:

Do you speak American?
Do you speak American?

While I live in the United Kingdom, I’m originally from Australia. And one thing many Australians share with the British (along with many of our other Commonwealth compatriots) is a feeling of nausea whenever we see the United States flag being used as an icon for the English language.

Being a user experience designer, I’ve long been aware of the perils of using flags to represent languages on websites. However it seems the more I travel and the more I browse the internet, this flag-as-language convention seems as prevalent as ever.

This blog has two general aims: to show the fundamental flaws in using flags to represent languages and how to create good experiences when dealing with multilingual and multiregional content.

While the tone of the blog is aimed mainly at those working online and in software, I hope the lessons can extend through to the other industries such as travel and hospitality  — who are probably the also as guilty of flag misappropriation as anyone.