Duolingo: flags promoting languages

The Duolingo homepage shows six flags on its homepage to demonstrate what language services it offers. While the United States flag is used for English, perhaps more unusual is the Brazilian flag being used for Portuguese. Yes, there are more Portuguese speakers in Brazil than Portugal, but for anyone with a knowledge of flags this would appear quite strange.

However, considering Duolingo teaches US English and Brazilian Portuguese, this perhaps isn’t so strange. But yet again we hit a problem when looking at Spanish: Duolingo teaches Latin American Spanish, not traditional (Castilian) Spanish as spoken in Spain. The flag metaphor definitely breaks here.

Going back to the juxtaposition of flags and languages on the homepage: does this actually detract from Duolingo’s main message? The language names are in light grey text which is not overly visible in the first place. Look at the page again with the language names removed:

The message now suggests quite strongly that Duolingo is only available in Spain, USA, France, Germany, Brazil and Italy.

If the flags were removed, could Duolingo’s services actually be clearer and better sold to a user?

Learning is an active and verbal exercise: the text and labelling here should reflect that. And that’s another area flags fail in: they don’t reflect that active or verbal element.

This might not be as colourful without the flags, but considering Duolingo’s lovely artwork and owl character, I’m sure both could be reconciled to create a far stronger and clearer homepage without flags representing languages.

This entry was posted in English, French (français), German (deutsch), Italian (italiano), Portuguese (português), Spanish (español). Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Duolingo: flags promoting languages

  1. Olivia says:

    who even cares, it’s a flag. We’re on a rock floating in space, and you’re whining about a colored cloth?

  2. James says:

    You cared enough to read it and comment, so thank you.

  3. Richard says:

    Olivia, is that all you can contribute to the discussion? If you don’t have anything intelligent to say, just fuck off.

  4. Chris says:

    The problem with the above suggestion is that Brazilian is actually a different dialect than mainland or even Acores Portuguese.
    With flags I can see that the language I would be learning would be Brazilian Portuguese, which would be understood best in Brazil, and in Portugal but it would be understood as Brazilian Portuguese. I think this is the one case where you actually need a flag to represent the country of origin for the language – as each country has a defined national language.

    • James says:

      Chris, you make a good point. But the biggest problem here is with Spanish: Duolingo teaches Latin American Spanish, yet it uses a Spanish flag for the Spanish language — which is actually misleading along with being inappropriate.

      (See more on this here: http://www.duolingo.com/!/comment/25067)

      • James says:

        Surely the differences between US English and English, English are so minor its not worth segregating the two?
        Of course you could argue using the flag of the united kingdom is unfair and you should use the flag of England i.e. St Georges flag. Overall however the idea that language = flag doesn’t really work in the modern world we either need a separate symbol and colour scheme or just use words.

        I’d like to say I don’t mind but it really pisses me off. Ultimately it annoys me that we tie languages to flags but really I’m just somewhat annoyed that my language/culture is becoming increasingly Americanized and represented by that flag which frankly I don’t like seeing. If you must use flags then surely you can make a small thumbnail of half the American flag half UK. The two look quite sound together but it could create some ugly graphics for other languages.
        I read this article after speaking to a Portuguese friend who mentioned the Brazilian flag.

        • craig says:

          English is the native language of Southern Scotland as well as of England (well, as native as English is to anywhere on the island). The English flag doesn’t work.

          I think the key is not that flags=languages but that people make automatic mental links between flags and the language a country is known for speaking.

  5. Nate says:

    To weigh in on the topic, I don’t mind. I am native english speaker from the U.S so maybe I’m not in the position to care. I see the flags simply as a symbol, playing on popular association people make,making the app easier to use. i do recognize the factual fallacies in doing it. Maybe someone could vocalize a little more on their emotional or cultural objections. Side topic which is kinda related, James mentioned he disliked the americanization of his culture.Like the flags, there is a problem of representation or what the flag/symbol/word is standing for. I can fairly well guarantee my American culture is not what his talking about however I do know what he means and I understand the use, so I do not take issue.

  6. Peter Snell says:

    An attendant problem with flags is that even if you (say) combine the U.S. and the UK flag, you exclude other countries: Canada (where I come from), India, New Zealand, etc. etc. In all these places English is used and there are rules that differ from England or the U.S.

    In short, I agree, flags don’t work. I’m guessing that people who don’t care are from dominant cultures. I’m sure most of the rest of us would be happy if Duolingo paid more attention to the “for the world” part of its logo.

    BTW, it’s interesting that Duolingo picked Spain to represent Spanish (the mother country in terms of the language perhaps), but not the U.K when it comes to English. Parochial? The dominant culture not realizing its bias?

    • craig says:

      In Switzerland it is pretty common to see French, German and Italian flags for those languages. Nobody much cares.

      I’ve not heard many complaints from Irish people about the British flag being used for English either.

      In my experience it tends to be where there is more than one country with an argument for being dominant that you get some people from those countries arguing, e.g. Britain/USA, Portugal/Brazil- here you’ve history against size and economy. With Spanish none of the Latin American countries really outshine Spain in the way Brazil does Portugal.

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