Flags as language symbols – so what is the problem?

Flags used as symbols for languages

Flags used as symbols for languages

Anybody who’s ever visited a bilingual or multilingual website has probably noticed a little widget somewhere in the corner that allows you to switch between all the different language versions. Very often, this language selector uses flags as graphical symbols. It seems like a simple enough idea: you click on the French flag for the French version, the Polish flag for the Polish version, the Russian flag for the Russian version, and so on. It is, however, a very bad idea, at least if you listen to most of the software globalization industry’s theoreticians. There is no shortage of articles and blog posts criticizing the practice. The classic is Jukka Korpela’s “Flag as a symbol of language – stupidity or insult?” from 1997, and you don’t have to google (or is it bing these days?) very long to find other tirades in the same vein (here, here, here, here and here). This opinion has even been sanctioned officially by the W3C Working Group on Internationalization.

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Europe’s speckled carpet

This is a near-translation of an earlier blog post in Irish.


Tartu University

Recently, I attended the International Conference on Minority Languages in Tartu, Estonia. This conference is held every two years but this year was my first time there. It was an occasion for people who care about minority languages to come together and network.

Broadly speaking, a language is a minority language when it is not the main language of communication in its country. There are lots of such languages, for example Catalan, Welsh, Breton and many others most people have never heard of. Many of them are languages that are strong in a neighbouring country, such as the German-speaking minority in Italy or the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Others are on their own completely, such as Basque or Irish.

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The language selector from hell

This blog kicks off with a scary story. Here is a screenshot from a self-service photo printing machine recently installed in a shopping centre near where I live. The cool thing is that it can be used in several different languages. The sad thing is that the language-selection screen is a complete shambles. Look and laugh with me.

language selector from hell

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