Using flags as language selectors – and the real problem they may be hiding.

Patrick Hall over at Blogamundo put up a good post the other day about why it’s a bad idea to use flags as language indicators (“Flags are a dumb way to represent languages” – Nov. 21/05). I agree with his points whole heartedly but I also think the issue also speaks to the confusion between the two types of translated/multilingual websites.

Certainly the argument against flags holds up when you look at countries like Canada or Belgium. Both are officially bilingual countries – so when you show someone a Canadian flag as a language option they aren’t sure whether to expect an English site, French site or a completely separate site that caters to both languages.

Herein lies the problem hiding under the surface – when starting out to create a “multilingual” site you need to consider very carefully the structure of its multilingual elements. Should you be creating a single website that is translated into multiple languages, or is multiple sites, each localized to their geographic region what you really need?

Take the translation industry for example. Europe views translation very differently from how North Americans view it. North America, with a few exceptions (i.e. Quebec), is very much in the midst of moving from translation as a novelty to translation as a business decision that everyone should be considering. In Europe translation just is – It’s just a part of doing business in Europe.

So, keeping in mind that geography could change how your message is received by site visitors, a company needs to weigh whether that perception shift is great enough to justify splitting off a site to specifically address that need.

At the end of the day you essentially have two high-level paths you can go down:

  1. “Multilingual” site – one source language translated into many other languages

    PROS: Simpler architecture, only one content source to manage

    CONS: Only one message is presented to different markets, changes can be costly when you have to update all languages each time

  2. “Regional” subsites – a series of sites that are delineated by region (Continent, Country, State/Province, etc.)

    PROS: Gives you messaging flexibility, each site would need to support fewer languages so changes wouldn’t have as big a translation impact. Gives a very inclusionary message to regions who you create a sub-site for

    CONS: More websites to juggle/manage, similar changes to core information may require updates to multiple sites if content can’t be shared


It’s a tough decision to make when starting to think of building a multilingual site – but it’s very important to consider this decision. At the outset the Mutlilingual approach will likely look far more appealing financially but if, in the long run, you’re fairly sure you’ll end up with regional sites it’s a good idea to consider buying a tool that will let you grow into that stage. From an application perspective the applications that support these types of websites are very different, and many CMS’s just weren’t designed to handle multiple sites, especially in multiple sites in multiple languages.

So the question comes back to flags. If you do go with regional sites are Flags a good way to get people to select their language? Purely language? No. Regionally? Perhaps.

The challenge with using graphical images to differentiate items is there’s no logical way to process them. You could line up all of the flags ordered by country name, but that’s a big leap for a user to make. It also potentially alienates users.

Quite often I’ll go to a site and there will be a US flag and a French flag. What message does that send to a Canadian visitor (Anglo or Francophone)? I would suggest use flags only in the following conditions:

  • If a regional site services more than one country either abandon flags altogether or, show all the flags that are covered by that region – i.e. don’t just put a French flag up if that’s where your office is if their mandate is to do business across Europe. Bad: You alienate users from other countries, Worse: They think you don’t service their market and find someone who does.
  • Use flags in a graphical context (i.e. a world map) so users can easily locate their region and then flag.

Either way, you must provide some textual way of selecting a regional site (i.e. a drop-down). Make sure the drop-down is ordered by the alphabetical order of the native language version of the country name (some countries names may change first letter from English to their native tongue and English speakers won’t be looking for that name).

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