Many considerations go into making a multilingual website, including how to set up a gateway for different languages. Lots of companies use flag icons to indicate a language, but this practice can have unintended consequences because national flags can fly with a lot of cultural, historical, and political meanings. Also, a country may have one flag but more than a single official language not to mention a multitude of unofficial languages. For instance, should a Swiss flag take you to a page in French or to a page in German? What about Spanish? Do you use a Spanish flag, a Mexican flag, an Argentinian flag, a Colombian flag, or a Venezuelan flag? And, although it doesn’t happen very often, sometimes a country changes the design of its flag leaving your website displaying the old flag.

Here are some other examples of problems that can arise from using flags.

Which Flag Should Represent English?

One choice is the Stars and Stripes, but this could irritate some users from other English-speaking countries. A second option is the UK’s flag, the Union Jack, but the UK is home to just a small percentage of the world’s English language speakers. You might end up annoying residents of the Republic of Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand or Canada.

  • What About a Hybrid Flag? – You might consider combining the American flag with the Union Jack as a kind of all-purpose English language icon. However, this may give the impression to some people that the two countries are considering a merger. And, in any case, most patriotic people don’t like to see their country’s flag chopped up or merged with another country’s flag.

Taiwan – Is it a Country or a Region?

The United Nations classifies Taiwan as an independent country. However, China regards Taiwan as a region of China. So if you put a Taiwanese flag on your website, you could be seen as weighing in on this particular political disagreement. If you are targeting a Chinese audience, millions of them won’t like to see a display of the Taiwanese flag.

Flags Don’t Scale

If you include a few flags on your global gateway and then decide to expand into even more countries, you’ll soon discover that lots of different flags on a page are confusing and the collage of colors has an adverse impact on usability. Besides, many flags are very similar, and when displayed in a small size on a screen, it’s hard to distinguish one from another.

Remember Flags are not Languages

The solution to flag confusion is simple – don’t use flags. The best and safest option is to stick to just language – i.e., the name of the language written out. The text should be in the native translated name of the language, for instance Deutsch for German. Just as you don’t want to turn off your potential audience by using the wrong flag, you also don’t want to annoy them with language that’s not sufficiently localized to their culture.

At Localize, we help you avoid the unintended consequences of incorrect language selection by providing multiple options for language display, including a fully customization language widget. Contact us to learn more about our translation management services and how we can help you streamline your localization project.