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.

19 thoughts on “Do you speak American?”

  1. That’s funny you should mention that you always run into the US flag to represent English. I happen to have the opposite experience, most of the time I see the British flag to represent English.

    I’m going to guess that it’s because of where we see the flags. As an American, I can agree with you that the US flag is mostly used in the US. However, I have lived for 15 years in South America and the Caribbean, and by far most of what I see in that region is the Union Jack.

    I’m curious, have you proposed a universal symbol to use instead of the US or British flags, to represent English?

    1. I know! Instead of using the Union Jack which represents the United Kingdom of ENGLAND Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we could use the ENGLISH flag. When a foreigner asks me where I am from I say England. I live in ENGLAND and speak ENGLISH.
      There is an English Flag don’t you know?

  2. I haven’t spent much time in the Caribbean or South America, so it’s really interesting hearing a perspective from that part of the world.

    Simply, I think the word ‘English’ is simple and straightforward enough. I really don’t think we need flags.

    From your perspective, how do you feel about the Spanish flag being used for Spanish? Is that the norm in the Caribbean and South America?

    1. Everyone seems to accept use of the Spanish flag (ie. Spain) to represent the Spanish language. Seldom do you see any other flag used.

      I think most people use flags because of the visual aspect. It is more colorful and pleasing to see these flags as language options instead of text.

  3. If I you use a Union Jack or an American flag to represent my language you better be the only game in town, because it is likely I will go with the competition.

  4. This discussion keeps on coming back, for the simple reason that the flags won’t go away.

    It’s striking that nearly all of the comments I have read along the lines of what’s the problem with using a flag? you’re just being politically correct! are by monolingual people from largely monolingual countries.

    They don’t understand that Irish people may feel faintly queasy about clicking on a Union Jack or Stars and Stripes icon to get English. To say nothing of the unfortunate Belgian who is expected to choose between a Dutch flag or a French flag.

    Trouble is, the vast majority of web developers are monolinguals from largely monolingual countries. They don’t undersand, they can’t be persuaded, and they hugely outnumber the rest of us. And that is why the flags won’t go away.

    1. @Paul – I am a web developer. I speak 10 Languages. Lived in 14 different countries and originated from a country that has 4 official languages. But still, Sometimes Flags must be used for the simple reason that there is no other good alternative. If something good can come out of this website it would be to cooperate on thinking and proposing a BETTER way of doing this UX. Usually here is a simple reason why people use the a certain Flag and that is a combination of the ratio of Cognoscibility along with the SIZE of the nation AND the eventuall possibility to confuse with other flag. Brazilian flag is much more recognizable than Portuguese and much less prune to mistakes, Spanish more than mexican or bolivian. and weather you like it or not ( I personally also don´t – and I tend to use the Jack ) the US flag is more recognizable than the British.

  5. I feel the same. I get annoyed that any other flag than the Saint George cross is used to represent the English language.
    I’m not sure if it is Americans trying to plagiarise our language or it is because of uneducated idiots actually thinking that English comes from America.
    I think that there should be a campaign started to stop this.

  6. I agre 100 percent with this statement, it’s so annoying to see the american flag used on the english language, it’s used almost all the time in this way now!

  7. I agree 100 percent with this statement, it’s so annoying to see the american flag used on the english language, it’s used almost all the time in this way now!

  8. Take your head out of your ass Americans.You speak the English language, which, if you are slow of realising(I even have a spelling mistake on “realising” because I used a “s” rather than a “Z”… ), derives from England….

  9. Ok J, maybe you should pull your head out as well as most people commenting here. It’s a US flag, not American flag. We in the Spanish speaking countries are also American and we sometimes refer to ourselves as Americans too. I wish the British and would realize how offensive it is to the rest of us ‘Americans’ living in the Americas!

    1. You have a good point — however the title “Do you speak United States of American” doesn’t quite have the same ring. Call it poetic licence!

  10. I am glad I stumbled across this site. For many years now I have seen with appaling regularity the annoying Stars and Stripes where the Union Jack (or St George) should logically be. I myself have an English speaking accent and not a British accent as the Americans have been insisting on for years. Their plan to appropriate the English language is almost complete I see. In a few years from now they will be claiming their right to call it American.
    I refuse to buy anything from any website that carries their offending flag and when necessary send the site a message asking why they are displaying the wrong flag. Who speaks American? Not me. When I have conversed with Americans online and asked them to explain the reason for this I have been told that: there are more of them speaking it, they have “improved’ it and finally that they find our flag offensive.

  11. I do not see the problem. The question the store owner posed was “Do you speak American?” they were not asking about English. When websites use an American flag to signal the American language version of their website, I expect they are after the American speaker and the American market. Simple. BTW, what does the English (not the British) flag look like?

  12. This whole blog is ridiculous. I see the point you’re trying to make but why is there actually a problem? Do you think selecting one flag over the other may be racist, discriminatory, or ignorant? As a UI/UX designer/developer, I am disappointed when I don’t see flags alongside language selection. What about non-literate users who would still like to see numbers/prices in their local currency on a particular website?

    I know I’ve been saved by flags many times simply when an application installs in russian or chinese, and I don’t even know WHERE the language settings are until flicking through every preference and finding a list of flags. I don’t care if it’s an aussie, us, brit, nz, or whatever flag, just give me a familiar one that I know speaks primarily english so I can select it.

    What do you propose is done? How does one maintain accessibility while satisfying your gripe? Place a flag of every country that speaks a particular language next to that respective language? With the multiculturalism of the globe these days, the only country you’d be able to accurately discern would be North Korea. What’s your solution?

    1. “What do you propose is done?”

      Since you claimed this whole blog was “ridiculous” then I am confused, as the entire blog deals with different ways of dealing with multilingual UI, and if you had read through it you would have seen many proposals and approaches to this problem.

      What was the application that installed in Russian or Chinese? I’d be curious to see it and think about how that interface could be improved. iOS and Android phones are used by billions of people around the globe and enable users to select their languages without using flags, so I think you might overestimate how important a flag is for choosing language.

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