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My users can create content in different languages, and i need to provide an option to choose the language when they enter new content.

Right now there are only 5 languages (en, fr, de, pt, es), and i was wondering if using country flags is the correct way to represent languages, or should i rather just provide labels (English, French, Deutsch, ...), since i'm never really sure if i should use the american or british flag to represent the english language.

The system right now is intended to store technical information, so there wouldn't be a need for en-gb or en-us or other sub-languages.

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don't use flags to represent languages. –  Dan D. Sep 26 '11 at 5:31
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What does everyone else think, is this a duplicate? ux.stackexchange.com/q/2472 –  Kartik G Sep 26 '11 at 10:30
    
possible duplicate of How to graphically represent a language –  ChrisF Sep 26 '11 at 10:44
    
No, this is not a duplicate at all. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Mar 26 '13 at 1:52
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5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The short answer is no, don't use country flags.

The preferred method is to use the name of the language in the language itself (and watch out for diacriticals, language specific capitalization, etc).

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There are some politically correct suggestions that we use ISO 639.1 language codes, but the reality is that to most people they mean very little. They are an engineering solution, not a UX solution.

If you go with country flags, there are some people that will not like the fact that you showed a US flag for English rather than for Navajo. The same way that some people living in France will think that you should use a French flag for Occitan.

The question that you need to answer is whether these complaints are significant to your user base, and whether or not it is clear what you mean. For example it annoys me when someone uses a US flag for English - to me it should be a British flag - but I know what they mean regardless.

You can go for the full name, but if you do that, please don't show the names in English. Show the names in the language that they represent. So instead of: French or Spanish show Français and Español.

It is still going to take longer for to find a language from text than they might from text and a flag, but you will have fewer people getting offended. You need to weigh up the two and decide what matters more for you.

As a side note. If you are going to avoid anything that will offend anyone, you are going to refrain from ever having an opinion on anything. Some people will find this post offensive because I am about to say beer. You can't make everyone happy, so don't try. Just try to make the clearest and most usable product that you can and avoid insulting people for no good reason.

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I would say stay away from flags, some people believe it or not don't even know their own flag plus there are colour-blindness and visually impaired issues to consider. I don't think it's a political-corrected issue at all, it's making non exclusive designs but also making a page that should only take a glance to work out a busy mass of colours and shapes so it is basic information display. Also, think about how the site might downgrade to mobile, flags would not work well.

There are other issues, if you use flags you should also provide a label (and/or alt-text) so why use a flag in any case?

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The 'not knowing your own flag' issue is a good point. –  PhillipW Sep 26 '11 at 9:27
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No, because a single country may and often does have multiple languages.

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That really doesn't matter if the country whose flag is used only has a single official language. For example in Belgium both Dutch and French are spoken and the language is indicated by the Dutch and French flags. Perfectly acceptable as both the Netherlands and France have a single official language. –  Marjan Venema Sep 26 '11 at 6:55
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this person is right. There is not 1 to 1 relationship between country and language. In my country, there are 3 official languages: Dutch, French and German. So what happens when you choose my country's flag? Also some languages are spoken in many countries. Take Portugese or Spanish for example. –  Bart Gijssens Sep 26 '11 at 6:57
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@ Marjan Venema: I don't agree. First of all I hate it when "my" country is forgotten. Secondly, I don't recognize the flag of the Netherlands and France that well (I always mistake between these two). Thirdly, I as a Belgian find it humiliating that I need to choose your country! (joke) Fourthly, what is the added value? –  Bart Gijssens Sep 26 '11 at 7:04
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same country has multiple languages and many countries have same language as well. So which flag would you use to not offend people. Don't use flags. –  Robert Koritnik Sep 26 '11 at 7:18
    
@MarjanVenema what about Flemish then? Even if people might recognise the flag of Flanders (Vlaamse Leeuw or leeuwenvlag) it would still be wrong, since the official language of Flanders is not Flemish. –  Erics Nov 24 '11 at 6:47
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Do not use a country flag to represent a language - there are countries with multiple languages that are not spoken in other countries.

Example: South Africa has 11 official languages, of which English is the only one spoken internationally. So which flag icon will you use to represent Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa or Tswana? You would need to have 10 identical South African flags in a row with the user having to guess which flag links to which South African language. You won't be able to get away with 'cheating' and using other countries flags like you could with French or German!

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