No Flags in Your Language Switcher

by Ricardo, Friday, July 22nd, 2011 at 5:00 am

(eCommerce, Global Marketing, Language & Translation, Website)

Web designers will add a little widget in your global sites to let your visitors to choose the target locale and language.

This is called the language switcher or the language selector.

In most cases, Your web designers will use flags as graphical symbols to make your language switcher look better.

Lingo365 strongly recommends you

Do not use flags in your language switcher

Flags Represent Countries, Not Languages.

typical language selector with flags

It seems like a simple enough idea: you click on the French flag for the French version, the Japanese flag for the Japanese version, the Spanish flag for the Spanish version, and so on.

It is, however, a very bad idea.

This has been sanctioned by W3C Working Group on Internationalization too: Do not use flag icons to indicate languages.

The reason is simple too:

Flags represent countries, not languages.

Numerous countries use the same language as another country, and numerous countries have more than one official language.

Flags don’t map onto these permutations.



It is not only illogical but also potentially insulting.

It is insulting because why should an English speaker from Ireland have to click on a Union Jack to access the English-language version of a website?

A flag used as a language symbol may have unwanted connotations (in addition to being misleading as regards to its denotation).

Even if the associated feelings are positive, there is no reason to raise them.



It is confusing for the same reason.

If you use a flag of Canada for language choice, in which language content would be: English or French?


Some Language Facts

  • English: A language spoken (natively) in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and many other countries. Often, the British flag is chosen as a symbol of the English language. But: Most native speakers of English live in the United States! Choosing the US flag on the other hand will annoy users from the UK and other English-speaking countries.
  • Spanish: Spoken in Spain, but also by hundreds of millions of people in the Americas and around the world. Why would a user from Argentina or Mexico want to click on a Spanish flag to read a text in his or her mother tongue?
  • Portuguese: Spoken in Portugal, Brazil and other countries. Most native speakers of Portuguese live in Brazil (190+ million inhabitants), while only about 11 million live in Portugal, where the language originated.
  • Chinese: Spoken in mainland China, Hongkong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore, though People from Hongkong, Macau and Taiwan use traditional Chinese, users from mainland China would be annoyed by Taiwan’s flags.


Who Are Using Flags?

But still, people continue doing it. There is no shortage of websites and software using flags in this way.

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between countries and languages.

It’s naive and stupid for global companies to use flags as language symbols.



However, in some specific cases, there actually is a one-to-one correspondence.

Japanese is pretty much only spoken in Japan. Thai in Thailand. Slovak in Slovakia.

Using flags as symbols for languages is harmless in situations where a one-to-one correspondence exists, such as Japan, Thailand, or Slovakia.


Best Practices

A good alternative to flags: Use the name of the language, written in the language itself: English, Español, Português… If there are only a small number of languages, the language names can be written next to each other. For a large number of languages, a drop-down list can be used. For great examples, see the websites ofYouTubeWikipedia and Facebook.




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