Should we use flags to represent languages?
Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Andrew Bell is a medical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English trading under the name Bell Johnson Translations. You can connect with him by using the following links:
The motivation for this blog post came to me when I was working on two assignments last month. I was asked to post-edit some text for a website and translate an instruction manual, and I noticed that both clients were using the UK flag to indicate that this was the English language version of the text. This reminded me of a very interesting episode of the Globally Speaking podcast I listened to some time last year. The episode discussed being globally appropriate, and of course, one of the main talking points was flags.
Flags are a very visual form of communication which can be used to evoke strong feelings of national pride and identity. You need look no further than sporting events to see that this is the case. Take, for example, my home country of England. During the World Cup, I would say an overwhelming majority of people, even those who are not big football fans, fly the English flag (not to be confused with the Union Jack, the flag of the UK) in some form or other, and this is universally accepted in England as a way of showing your support for the England squad. However, we mustn’t forget that it is the context that lends this interpretation to the use of the English flag, as outside of sporting events, were somebody to be flying this particular flag, it may be interpreted as showing support for right-wing anti-immigrant political ideologies. Therefore, I believe that companies should certainly scrutinise their use of flags much more than they currently do, as you never know in the global world we live in, how a particular flag may be interpreted by another person.
The purpose of this blog post is not to say that the use of flags to represent languages is incorrect, as there are situations where this may be acceptable. If you have a product that is only applicable to the UK and French markets for example, and you have no intention of exploring other markets, then representing the language used in documentation using flags would probably be acceptable. However, as I said above, flags may have connotations other than simply identifying a language to some readers, and in many cases, this could cause problems.
If you’re targeting many different markets, using a flag may actually cause confusion or generate bias. It could be argued that if the text is written in a certain variety of a given language, let’s say British English, then using the UK flag to represent the use of British English should be acceptable. However, this becomes troublesome if you would like to expand to the US market, as you would need to localise the text for US English usage, such as changing date formats and currencies, but then this would contradict the use of the UK flag, as now the text wouldn’t fulfil the readers expectations of British English usage. One possible solution would be to make different versions of all documentation for each variety of a given language and represent each one with a different flag, however given that speakers of different varieties of the same language can usually understand each other without a problem, especially in the case of Brits and Americans, the cost of this option would outweigh the benefits. Following this line of thought, the flaws of this solution suddenly become very apparent if you consider a language like Spanish, which is spoken in 20+ countries, meaning there are potentially 20+ varieties of the language. In this case, I highly doubt that a company would want to localise a text for each individual Spanish speaking country so they could use the appropriate flags on their documentation.
Flags are also ambiguous. To illustrate what I mean, I would like to ask you a series of questions.
Which language would you associate with the following flags?
English or French?
French, Flemish or German?
German, French, Italian or Romansh?
A simple solution to the flag-language dilemma is simply writing out the name of the language (in that language), for example, Spanish would be Español, and French would be Français, or using the universally accepted ISO language codes:
English = EN
Spanish = ES
German = DE
This way, it is impossible for anyone to be biased by the countless interpretations of a given flag, it allows you to use any variety of a given language without needing to localise for every single variety, and it avoids the debate over which flag should be used to represent which language. Of course, this solution isn’t perfect, you would still have to make decisions regarding which variety of the language you would want to use. Consequently, this means that some readers won’t be able to read the text in their preferred language variety, but at least they will be able to approach the text from a neutral perspective rather than a biased one influenced by a flag.
Beninatto, Renato, Stevens, Michael W. and Coady, Michele. 2017. How to Be Globally Appropriate, Locally Relevant (and Avoid Cultural Mistakes). Globally Speaking Radio. [Podcast]. [Accessed 29 January 2021] Available from: https://www.globallyspeakingradio.com/episodes/how-to-be-globally-appropriate-locally-relevant-and-avoid-cultural-mistakes/