Flags to symbolise languages? Think again!

Symbols are culture dependent. A little worn-out example is that a cow bears a different symbolic value in India than in Europe. Our understanding of what a symbol represents is also dependent on time. An arrow denoting movement is as topical today as it was thousands of years ago. Some other signs, in the manner they were used once, have become obsolete. It is just a matter of time before a floppy disk discontinues being equivalent to saving a document in Microsoft Word, one might think. It is still present in 2013, for lack of a better symbol, I suppose.

Symbols are fascinating. They do not barely bear a meaning—they represent and recreate it. An image of a tree represents a tree. Sometimes, it stands for growth. Depending on context and author’s intention, it can also signify nourishment, strength, life, or health.

One of the most common symbols on the web is a flag. Flags are used to help users pick their country of residence in an online form. They can also be used by users to choose a preferred language of a site. The problem is that it is in some cases impossible to tie a language to a country that the flag is to symbolise. And it has little to do with the world having become a global village.

Here is a simple example. You are building a website in four languages: English, Spanish, French and Russian. For the English version of the site, you pick the flag of the UK, for the Spanish version—the flag of Spain, for the French—of France, and for the Russian—the flag of Russia. Now, consider this. Should you be guided by the country the language originated in or by the country that the language is most widely spoken in, to denote a flag for you to pick? Are there other factors that affect the choice of a country, like a percentual contrast between the number of first-language inhabitants in two countries?

Neither of the four languages is easy to pick a country flag for, without offending certain groups of people. The issue here is some people (myself included) would not identify themselves with a country when picking a language of preference to view a website in. There are plenty of first-language speakers of Russian, French or Spanish who might have never set their foot within the borders of the respective country in the example above. And if we choose the flag of the UK, what are our grounds for not choosing the flag of the USA or Australia, where English is the de facto language?

As argued by several respected people in the web and usability industry, I, too, recommend using the best symbol for a language there is to date—the name of the language in the language itself. After all, it is something anyone speaking the language can understand, even if they live in different countries.

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