Flag as a symbol of language – not a good idea

While working on the GetGNULinux.org project in June 2011, I decided to update the look of the website as I wasn’t very satisfied with it. It just wasn’t very nice on the eye and I’m not easily satisfied. One of the things I thought definitely needed a face-lift was the language menu. One of the changes I made was anchoring images of country flags to the language links in the language menu. I mainly did this because I thought it looked nice and because it could make it easier for someone to select the preferred language (the flag of your own country is very recognizable). But I recently realized that this wasn’t such a good idea.

This decision has given some issues. For example, GetGNULinux.org is written in English, American English to be more specific. But from the start I’ve been using the flag of the United Kingdom for the English language. This obviously doesn’t make sense. I later changed this to the flag of the United States. This however doesn’t solve the problem, as I later found out.

Last week I got an email from a translator who explained that I was using the wrong flag for the Catalan language. Fact is that I was using the flag for Andorra for the Catalan language. According to Wikipedia, “Catalan [is] the national and only official language of Andorra and a co-official language in the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia.” So which flag should be used to link to the Catalan language: the flag for Andorra or the Catalonian flag? I was later told by a Catalan translator that the Catalonian flag should be used to refer to the Catalan language, for historical reasons and because it was used more often. So I changed it.

To get back to the issue with the “English flag”. I still wasn’t sure whether this use of the UK or USA flag for the English language was correct. So I googled “flags language” and the first result read: “Why you should not use a flag as a symbol of language”. This of course drew my attention, so I clicked on that link which brought me to an article with the title “Flag as a symbol of language – stupidity or insult?“. It is a very well written article which explains the issue very clearly. To keep things short: a flag is a symbol of a country, not a language. And there is no reason to bind the country and the language strictly together.

“Why should, for example, a Brasilian select the flag of Portugal to select his native language? It’s quite possible that a Brasilian does not even know the flag of Portugal.” – http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/flags.html

Hence the use of flags to refer to languages doesn’t make sense. So today I followed the advice from that article and I removed all flags from the language menu of GetGNULinux.org.

But it doesn’t stop there. On that same website I found a section “Techniques for multilingual Web sites” with more useful documents from the same author. I took more advice from those documents in order to optimize GetGNULinux.org. For example, the language menu has been moved to the bottom of the documents in order to emphasize the content at the beginning of a page in indexing. And language negotiation is something I wanted to make use of for some time now, and this is something those documents also cover. So this is something I’ll work on in the near future.

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