Yesterday I found this article: "Flag as a symbol of language - stupidity or insult?". I think the author has very valid points.

So the i18n development team might consider removing the flags from the laguage block or provide an option to use the name of the language in stead.


paddy_deburca’s picture

I agree with using ISO, or similar, codes to denote language. To me a flag represents a geographic location not a language.

Where space is limited en, fr, de, es, pt, it, ... could be used; where space is abundant English (en), français (fr), Deutsch (de),.... could be used.

Paddy., and

dman’s picture

While the modification to the module could certainly be presented as an option, I don't think that article makes any real great points.

The objection to using graphics at all is weak assuming alt tags (containing the ISO abbreviations) are backing them up. Flag gifs aresome of the smallest, lightest and unobtrusive graphic elements you'll find out there on the web today.

The advantage of easily-recognised icons you can pick out in a group is way ahead of his suggested eyeball-squeezing
[es][el][en][eo][eu][fr][nl][de] ... list.

Those codes are actually quite techie, and nowhere near as recognisable, internationally, as the respective flag. They are (rightfully) truer to their native language labels, but they require either study or knowlege that "Spain"=Espania, "Greece"=Ellada, "Holland"=Nederlands, "Germany"=Deutchland ... etc. This is not an English-only problem, all languages munt up other countries labels to some extent. ... and what language do you think "eu" represents?

OK, he says that a native speaker probably knows what their own language is coded as, so this obscurity shouldn't affect the rest of the public. But isn't it a little disconcerting to see a message on the screen (especially of a government site) that is explicitly not intended for you to even understand? The Japanese symbol for Japanese (or is it Chinese?) tells you that this page is also available to someone ... but you're not supposed to know who. That can be an intellectual insult of sorts.

He derides the need for an alternative link to be visible on a page he can read quite well already. How stupid and backwards is that complaint?!
The point is that when I go to a Korean page which renders at utter gibberish to me, I can see a little flag icon in all that chaos that will take me to the English version of that page!
I don't need to know what character set they are using, and I don't need to know what their language calls "English", yet I can navigate the site!

Just as stupid is the claim

If you have a link with anchor text in English, ... isn't it pretty obvious that it refers to a document written in English?

... well not if it's like Mona Lisa, a media link, a Flikr set, or a link to a site that does do internationalization on the server as he promotes in the first section.

The only remaining point - that a flag rightfully represents a country and not a language - is correct, but simply politically correct fluff. I come from a tiny country that is neither UK or US, but I don't get have a problem clicking on their flags if I want to read English. If a Swedish-speaking Finn is offended by the requirement to respond to a foreign countries flag, then any ethnic minority, even the third-generation Dutch family down the road from me, could have the same problems. They are naturalized citizens, but if they pick up a travel map, they still have to choose one with the 'offensive' flag on it.



Hosting Geek’s picture

Its really something that should be standardize maybe a metadata saying what other langs of this page are avilible and where abouts they can be found and browser should support this standard and let the user choose he piority of langs he wants....

flagman’s picture

Flags can be great for "localaization" but not for language. Localization is for content specific to a geograhpic region. For example Ford Motor Company has different web sites with different products for different parts of the word. A user who wants information on car models in Belgium and speaks French should pick which flag?

Using flags is confusing and incorrrect for indicating lanugage. I agree that icons or images are great for quickly conveying information. However if the icon is confusing, inacurate, or can have many different meanings for the situation it makes doesn't make a great icon for the intended goal. Just because it is a picture doesn't mean that it's meaninful or useful. Create an icon that can be understood only as a language and I will support language icons fully but not using an icon that is confusing and has multiple meanings.

Additionally, have you forgotten about the user who only reads Spanish but lives in England or the Chinese reader who lives in Venezuela?

Statistics show many people outside the USA don't even know their own flags much less the flags of another country.

Visit the a home page of the award winning anti-spyware software spybot, and you can see how ridiculous this is.

They acutally rotate between the flags of Englan, UK, and USA for English and a variety of other flags for other languages. Fortunately they have updated the site to include the language name spelled in that language (except for Chinese). However, they are still confusing people because of the localization issue.

Take a look at on the homepage they ask you to visit the site of your local country but unfortunately they spell them all in English. Once you get to the France site, for example it's all in French but they have a link at the top right that says "English".

You can see other examples of global websites where you need to select a region or country before you select a language at sites like or or check hot sites deal with laungugages in a more usable way like,, or

Also, check a co. based in Spain but with stores around the world. On their site you must select first from Engish or Espana, then you must choose a country to localize products etc.

Kobus’s picture

Ah, but I don't know why you disagree. It is a very valid argument. Take South Africa for example. We have one flag and 11 NATIONAL languages. Yes. All 11 langauges in our national language "bouquet" are represented by that one flag. If I put the flag as indication of the language there, which of the 11 languages do I represent with it?

-- Kobus

dman’s picture

If there were an internationally useful iconic way languages could be recognised to everyone, I'd agree instantly.
But there isn't.

I'm not saying a flag is a great thing, but it is currently understood (better) by users who haven't memorized the entire ISO 639-2 chart, or have any clue what is even meant by i18n.
ISO codes are truly hard to scan and are simply not as findable in a page full of foreign language. I'll bet you can find your favorite flag in a list of 50 icons 3x faster than you'd find it in an unorderd plaintext list of country codes.
And the page would be less intimidating in the meantime.

No, I probably couldn't pick out the Portugese flag in a line-up - but I'll bet you dollars to pesos that a Portugese speaker could. And I imagine a fair few South Americans know what the Spanish flag looks like. I am not sure if [ES] is as versatile. ... it may be...

On one level the rant is about as useful as a woman protesting about having to use a toilet with an icon of a long dress on it because the skirt-wearing stereotype does not fully represent the fact that she's actually wearing trousers.

OK, point taken, but ... so what?

There were debates about this sort of stuff in the early days of the web when folk pointed out that their mailboxes didn't look anything like the american mid-west style things with a little flag on the side.

They are just icons - trying to fit a simple concept into a few pixels instead of adding more text to the page.
They always are less than the concept they represent.
Not all 'disabled' folk are in wheelchairs, Not many people use a 'magnifying glass' to 'search' and not all English speakers swear allegiance to the stars & stripes.

But we get by.

Look, if the article had some good solutions, that'd be great. I agree a better way would be good. I totally understand the difference between location & language. I spent years in a place where websites kept on redirecting me to a different version of the page based on my IP. - always the incorrect one, and trying to insist that I actually wanted to read in English was sometimes hard to make stick.

My only point was that his suggested ways were not better, either technically or for the user, than the status quo.

I'd be interested to know how your government sites are currently addressing the issue of publishing everything in 11 languages simultaneously, we only have two to deal with, so the full-text link works most of the time.


januario’s picture

Ethnologue refers to the world’s 6,912 known living languages...I doubt the bottom 6,000 combined account for as many speakers as any one of the top 10.

If someone is looking for a page written in language #6,912, he'll search for that page...chances are, he'll also understand one of the 10 most spoken languages...if not, his troubles aren't limited to that web page.

For the other 99.99999%...

FabriceV’s picture

Dear Mr.

Flag is a graphical representation generally associated to a country, but not only.

You said that this representation is able to represent... This is obvious. The language can be directly named or the language can be indirectly represented by a country flag. This is the fact.

The only advantage of symbolisation is related to perception once representation is acquired. The visual localisation is faster and easier. This is why you should encounter symbolisation by the side of your road to alert you.

Depending on the context, flag or name can be advantageous, however there is no chance that flag could be a generic solution.


paddy_deburca’s picture

I am a non-English English speaker. This is the whole crux of the problem. I am not English - I therefore have no alliegience to either the Union-Jack or the Stars-and-Stripes. To allocate the language I speak to a particular country is wrong.

However, I do speak English. English is spoken in many countries not associated with the UK or the US. Similarly, Portuguses is spoken in many countries and it is convieveable that some people do not know the Portuguese flag; the same could also be said for Spanish, French and even English.

The graphic of the flag may look nice - but it does not make the page any more accessible.

In my opinion the language name or the 2 (or even 3) letter ISO codes should be used to identify a language - not a flag.

Paddy., and

januario’s picture

Flags are good, text links are bad.

Assuming people will search a page they don't understand for a text link written in their language is absurd. So many statistics point to the short period of time a user will spend on a site if he does not find what he's looking for. A flag jumps out quickly.

Furthermore, it's much easier to remember what a flag looks like than to remember the 2 letter abbreviation. Just being on makes us unlike the general public. We know that PT is Portuguese, EN is English, etc... My parents don't. They do, however, speak English and Portuguese and know what both of the flags look like. It's much safer to assume a native speaker of a language knows what the flag of that language's birth country looks like than to expect him to know a two-letter piece of tech-jargon.

As for the problems that people may be offended...well, I don't agree with everything the English do, but they did create one of the languages I speak. That's why it's called English. The creators of a language deserve the respect of having their flag fly for the language.

The issue of the UK flag being used for English...are we talking history lessons, or Internet usability? If everyone is using a UK flag, then it's right because people know to look for the UK flag. Red makes bulls charge, so should we change the stop sign to blue, which is a more calming, slowing color...NO. We've become attuned to the red sign, so it stays red.

Another HUGE advantage to using flags is that they scream out a version is available in another language. In the fraction of a second people take when they visit a website for the first time, they'll see the cluster of flags...they won't see a cluster of [en] [fr] [pt] [es] ...

Finally, if your readers are Brazilian, use the Brazilian flag, likewise if they're Australian use the Australian flag. But if it's a worldwide audience, use the flag from where the language originated...and yes, for English that's the UK flag. If you don't know, side with worldwide.

The writer of the anti-flag article pointed out that the UK flag is not the English flag...has he ever asked someone from the UK to explain whether they're from England or the UK...the answers I've heard are much more cryptic than the simple misuse of a flag.

Of course this is all to say nothing of the Korean, Japanese, ... issues that dan points out. For these situations, [en] [pt] ... are useless.

So are we modeling ourselves after the European Union and becoming politically correct, or are we striving for usability? If the goal is to be more politically correct, we must stop the development of Drupal to focus on creating versions in every language out there before we even think of handling the [en] vs. UK Flag issue.

...who's volunteering for Quechua?

Bockereyer’s picture

If you don't like the flags use a country selection box and link the country to a language. For instance, many web sites for Belgian customers are mostly in Dutch, French and sometimes even in German and English. If you make sure you have in your list België, Belgique and Belgien or even Belgium a Belgian surfers will know which to choose. It's the least that if you are doing business in a country you know which language(s) they are speaking.
That said take a look at the Belgian Federal Government at, on the homepage you can choose one of the four available languages and on the pages they use the 2-letter ISO code. It must be good design because they have their web site "anysurfer" approved which means it has good accessebility.

Maybe it would be best that you could choose in the i18n module the flags, a customizable list or the 2 of 3 letter ISO code.

Everybody happy!

juanfe’s picture

I have struggled with this one, and ultimately think that the author makes a very good point.

There are two things to remember:

- not one size fits all
- a flag as a symbol can mean many things, not just language
- for multi-language, multi-country sites flags may not only represent language but also geographic extent

I'm writing a website that is in three languages (English, Spanish and Portuguese) and available primarily but not exclusively in five countries (US, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Mexico). If I choose the text for language switching, i have to make about 30 ems in my header available for the text. If I were to choose images, I can get away with about 45 pixels' worth of graphics.

However, the flag solution, though pretty, doesn't work for me for a bunch of reasons:
- cultural (colonialism, national pride and identity, etc)
- I don't want to misrepresent that information in my site only applies to a specific country (say, I use Mexico flag to signify "spanish" but the information is relevant to Argentina and Peru but not Mexico.)
- I don't want my users in one country to think that i'm somehow disrespecting them because I chose another country's flag.

So, I've opted to use the language code as a compromise. Not ideal but it will work for me.

But I think that whenever we deal with absolutes, we twist ourselves in circles. (think "absolutely no tables for layout ever" or "absolutely no inline styles"). If flags work for your audience, use them. If they don't, don't use them.

- jfr

avangelist’s picture

Sorry to pitch in over a year since the last post, but I cannot see how anyone can get pissy about using flags for languages. Look in every single user manual for every electronic appliance you have bought, how are they distinguished? using a bloody flag and the foreign textual label for said language.

If it 'aint broke, don't fix it.

You read something in the language you understand regardless of physical locality.

I think you should use both the graphic and the text because not all browsers display alt tags for people with disabled images only broken links.

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