TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Sprechen Sie Belgian?

Since the same language can be spoken in several countries
and conversely several languages spoken in the same country,
I have never understood why Web designers would choose
to use country flags as a way to represent languages visually.

I can imagine how, say, a citizen of France might spot at once
the tricolor of blue, white, and red, identify with it, click on it,
and naturally expect to be delivered information in French,
but it simply does not work for me, as a citizen of Belgium:
while I am a native speaker of French, I do not feel French
and do not relate to their colors. Visually, I skip their flag
as I scan the list of choices for something I can identify with.
Similarly, I can see how US citizens might not want to have
to click on the Union Jack in order to see the site in English—
all the more so when it is announced as “international English”
as on the site of Ferrari below—or the Italian-speaking Swiss
on the Italian flag, the Chileans on the Spanish flag, and so on.

I would, of course, easily spot—and be able to identify with—
a Belgian flag, and it is not uncommon to find it on Web sites.
When the idea behind the flags is language selection, however,
I do wonder which of the three official languages of Belgium
I am thus selecting. Given the political sensitivity of the issue,
Belgians might resent the “default” language set for Belgium
by the Web designer, exactly like French-speaking Canadians
might resent the use of the red maple leaf to indicate English.

Recently, I have noticed commendable yet ineffective attempts
to include more than one country in an icon for a language,
such as half Union Jack, half Stars and Stripes to mean English

or halves from Belgium and the Netherlands to mean Dutch.
While they may seem intellectually satisfactory, such hybrids
are hard to recognize, especially at their typical small size,
and they carry the same limitations as the full flags anyway:
other languages than Dutch are spoken in Belgium, and Dutch
is spoken in other countries than Belgium and the Netherlands.

The lumping together of country and language(s) is frequent,
yet less justified than ever in today's global village: the two are
typically best kept apart. The country where you happen to be
does influence the selection of available products and services
or the conditions at which these can be provided. It does not,
however, mean that your language preference is this country's.
You might simply be visiting—or you might prefer to be given
the original version, such as English, rather than a translation.
For example, why is Apple Belgium at available
only in French and Dutch (through a weird menu that suggests
you can also speak Apple)? The page you get after this menu
is exactly the home page of—only translated.
In an international city such as Brussels, I trust many people
(Belgians or foreigners) would prefer the English version of it.

As with any automatic selection, a language selected for you
is nice when appropriate, but can exasperate you otherwise—
a nice example of high-risk, high-yield approach (see Entry 6).
When I enter, for example, why am I taken
automatically to (not .com)—and in Dutch?
Sure, I can change the country and the language, but this is
not what I asked for, and not what I need either. Why guess?
(Not to mention the dubious translations of Google's famous
I'm feeling lucky.) Because we notice mostly what goes wrong,
giving the visitors an explicit choice seems a safer approach.
And if a default is presented, then the possibility (or the need)
to change country or language must be made explicit enough.
I remember trying to book a United Airlines trip on
only to find out on the very last of many screens that I could
not do so for not being a resident of the United States: I had
to do the whole thing from scratch again on

If the purpose is country (not language) selection, then flags
are probably a good visual choice, especially in combination
with verbal labels (the country names), for effective redundancy.
I am amazed, however, at the extent to which designers will go
to make the flags hard to recognize. With very few exceptions,
country flags are rectangular, flat, and meant to be horizontal.
Any other shape or orientation, however aesthetically pleasing,
makes them harder to identify at a glance, which is the idea
of visual communication in the first place (see also Entry 2).
Here are unexpected flag designs I have come across recently.
None of them strikes me as superior to the original rectangle.

Thu 1 Apr 2010   As I was going through Immigration at Atlanta Airport,
I noticed that the interpreters were displaying flags on their name badges,
presumably to indicate the languages they speak. One interpreter sported
(among others) a Swiss flag: am I therefore to assume that she can speak
French, German, Italian, and Romansh? And what to think of the person
who showed the Stars and Stripes? Did she speak Spanish? Or Hawaiian?

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