Why flags do not represent languages

Flags are symbols that represent
countries or nations.
Flags are symbols that represent countries or nations.
Languages represent a shared method
of communication between people.
Languages represent a shared method of communication between people.

Flags are unique to a country or nation: but languages are often spoken across national borders. By using a flag for a language, you may confuse or even offend users.

Consider these examples:

English

Arguably, the flag of England is the most appropriate flag to represent the English language. But how recognizable is the English flag?

However, often the British flag is used to represent English. Within Britain, other languages other than English are spoken — including Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

Often the United States flag is used to represent English — and while the USA has far more English speakers than Britain, English does not originate from the United States.

Furthermore, English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world: it is spoken in countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa to name just a few. How will users from these countries react to an English, British or American flag?

Spanish

The Spanish flag is often used to represent the Spanish language.

However, in Mexico alone there are more Spanish speakers than Spain.

Spanish is also spoken in numerous other countries including Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. There are also a large number of Spanish speakers in the United States — including Puerto Rico. Is a Spanish flag the best choice for users outside of Spain?

French

The French flag is an obvious choice to represent the French language. While most French speakers live in France, French is spoken in many other countries — including Belgium, Ivory Coast and Switzerland.

French is spoken in Switzerland along with other languages — Italian, German and Romansh.

Similarly, in Belgium French is also spoken with other languages — mostly Dutch and German in a small minority.

How will users from other French-speaking countries — Belgium or Switzerland especially — feel about the use of the French flag?

Many other languages share similar issues when combined into a single flag — including Arabic, Bengali, German, Hindi and Portuguese. Flags are specific to countries: languages often cross borders.

If you are targeting users from a specific country, then flags are highly appropriate. However, if you’re targeting users of a specific languages, think again before using flags.

Further reading (external sites)

10 Responses to Why flags do not represent languages

  1. Jm says:

    The flag of a language should be of the language’s founding country, or continent. Not of the country with the the most speakers.

    • Andrew says:

      When is a language considered to be founded? What about languages that developed across borders, or evolved among a diaspora, or whose known founding country has ceased to exist? What is the flag of the European continent? (Hint: It isn’t the flag of the EU.) The African continent? (Not the African Union either.) The Asian, North American,and South American continents? I’m sure you could answer these questions, but I doubt in a way that’s unambiguous and apolitical.

  2. Luke says:

    Thanx for this interesting article

  3. Craig says:

    Some interesting points but ultimately I disagree.
    I find that spotting the language change options is often a tricky task if it is just text based, a nice colourful flag however draws my attention.
    True, as a Brit it can make my blood get slightly warm to see the American flag used for such a purpose but think of it in terms of the English being American English, you can expect a few minor words being differently spelled and that is why it is American, and its no problem.
    The British and US flags are instantly recognisable symbols of English.

  4. Rob says:

    Completely agree with Craig. Who cares if Mexico has more Spanish speakers or that English did not originate with my friends on the other side of the Atlantic? Everyone knows what it means and that’s all that matters. I note you don’t suggest a better system.

  5. Rob says:

    Ah apologies, I see you did here; http://flagsarenotlanguages.com/blog/best-practice-for-presenting-languages/

    but in terms of design, that looks much worse. Do you have numbers to back up whether it works better?

  6. Leonardo P. says:

    I am Brazilian, and when I see the Portugal flag representing the Portuguese language, I have to say that I… see no problem! And when I see Brazilian flag… I don’t see problem either!

    The use of flags is so common, even out of internet (user’s guide, touristic guides, language dictionaries, etc.), that nobody would take more than half second to find it.

  7. J. Robinson says:

    Interesting analysis and conclusion. Perhaps the worst offence of all, is using both written and iconic versions side-by side; an American flag on it’s own could be interpreted to mean “American English”, but by placing the American flag next to a label that says “English” it removes all doubt and only stands to irritate an Englishman. (As would labeling the Mexican flag “Spanish”)

  8. oriste says:

    Just one small comment, in Belgium we don’t speak Flemish, much as we don’t speak Walloon either. We do speak Dutch (60%) though, and French (40%) and German (0.7%). Thought you might be interested in that little known fact.

  9. Juan says:

    I definitely think that some flags could be used for languages, (but these should be flags of the regions where the language originated) for example as noted in other comments, the flag of England for the English language. BUT for the Spanish language the flag of Castile, the historic region of Spain where the Castilian language (Spanish) originated Or better yet, flags should be created *specifically* to represent languages

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