Why it's best to avoid flags for language selection

Posted by lilo on Oct 5, 2020 11:17:50 AM

If you build a website or an app, you might be tempted to use flags for language selection. It seems intuitive and clear at first, although it often causes confusion and can even lead to controversy.



Belgians are the perfect example. We are a small country in between France, Germany and The Netherlands. We have three official languages: Dutch, French and German. And because Brussels is the heart of the European Union, we often revert to English as the common language as well. Our flag looks like this Belgium but you cannot use it as such in a language selection list as it actually represents 3 languages. The Belgians will therefore have to click on the Dutch flag Netherlands, the French flag France or the German flag Germany depending on the language in which they want to read the site they’re visiting. Or the Belgian flag might be used, guiding the visitor to three further options: Belgium - Dutch, Belgium - French, Belgium - German.
By the way - did you notice that the colour palettes can already cause some confusion?


Now, imagine you're a Dutch speaking Belgian and you have to click on the flag of the Netherlands. You'll of course understand what's written, but it will not feel 'like home' as there are slight differences in communication style between both regions. If you're visiting a webshop you'll even use different words to look for certain things.
Imagine what would happen if you have to click on a flag of another country when there's political tension.


Flemish flag

Of course there's a Belgian variant of Dutch - Flemish - but most companies won't make the effort to translate into both variants (and it's often not needed anyway). In some cases it might be sufficient to optimise the keywords for both regions separately.  
You might wonder if it would be an option to use the flag of Flanders
, but you won’t find that flag in the Unicode character set and therefor not your favourite messaging app either.
On top of that, you might need to invest in a lot of local research, as there’s a variant of that Flemish flag that is often linked to the collaboration during world war two . Did you spot the difference? There are also flags that look alike, such as the flag of a region in France that was once conquered from the Flemish but is still called “French Flanders” .  Are you still following ;-)?


What if you do have a localised version of your website for that particular region, because they use a different currency, or you have a local office there with a local address?  We’ve seen some attempts of half-half flags like , and , but I hope you’ll agree with me that just doesn’t work.



As stated above in the example of Belgium, any catering business in Brussels will want their website in English to serve the international crowd and there’s no regional flag for a region in Belgium that speaks English. You therefore might want to revert to the UK flag United-Kingdom. Add Brexit to the equation and you’ll be clicking on the flag of the one country that decided to leave the EU. 

Long story short, you don’t want to use flags to select a language.


What to use instead? 

Simply the names of the languages will do, if really necessary with the name of the country between brackets.  Just have a text-based menu where people can find their own language. Just make sure not to translate these labels. Leave English as “English”, and Dutch as “Nederlands”, no matter in which language you’re displaying the rest of the site. You know, once you’ve switched to Chinese, you’ll have a hard time finding 英语 in the list ;-).

To indicate the place for language selection we would recommend an icon that people will recognise, such as a world map , a globe icon or a language switch icon .



Did this article raise any questions or doubts?  Get in touch with the lilo team. We’re more than happy to help you with any questions you might have and we can always connect you to a local specialist.

Topics: country flags, Language selection, Website localisation