How to graphically represent a language
Websites often present language selection to users with flag icons, but I think this is simply wrong. Flags represent countries.
There are two reasons for a user to change the display language (or at least click on that flag):
- Change the language as he can't read the one displayed: even if the country is correct (say Switzerland), people can speak different languages (French, German and Italian)
- Adapt the content to his country: even if the language is correct, an English speaking visitor may be interested in British content rather than US content.
The logic I would follow is:
- If you have country specific content, let the user select his country first. Flags are perfectly correct in this case.
- If the country has been selected or if the content doesn't depend on the country, let the user select his preferred language. And back to my question here: how to graphically represent a language?
I've seen "English" flags half US/half UK, but how would an Australian identify to that?
My question is not about the techniques used to recognize a user's culture or country of origin using his IP and browser preferences, but how to avoid displaying available languages by their names?
Conclusion considering the answers:
Do not use a flag to represent a language. There is no natural graphical representation for a language. The only acceptable icon for a language is its two letter code as it is used in the Windows standard language toolbar. Even with this icon, it is highly recommended to put the language name in plain text, preferably in its native form.
Update: I just discovered that there is a running competition to Create an icon to signify "language". The results should have been published by Jan 15th 2010, but two months later there is still nothing. It must be a problem with no solution. Update 2013: There is finally a winner for the "switch language" icon. It doesn't solve the graphical representation of a language but I think it's a nice solution for its purpose:
Graphical representations are more susceptible to misinterpretation due to cultural differences, so you might actually be better off with text. The use of flags is a compromise, and as you pointed out, not a good one either because some languages are so widely spoken that the user might not always identify with the flag of the country of origin or most dominant countries where that language is spoken as a first language by the majority. This is a very good question because, even if no answer is found, it highlights the downfall of using flags. So +1 from me.
And some countries will have multiple languages, so flags will not always have a one to one mapping to a language. Another note: Not all images will be culturally dependent (symbols), but certainly this will be the case with something abstract like a language.
Most languages are tied by name to some country. English is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, but anyone speaking English can tie it to England (heck, even the U.S. flag would work), likewise with Spanish (Spain), German (Germany), etc. And a country like Switzerland is irrelevant to this problem. No one is going to put up a Swiss flag to represent German or French or Italian. And even the Swiss know to look for a German/French/Italian flag for those languages.
Now, if you want to ask people to choose a country of origin and base their language preferences off of that, then you may have a problem. Otherwise, even though I'm an American, I am perfectly capable of identifying the Union Jack with English.
You seem to say that things are obvious. But I am certain that using flags for both countries and languages can be extremely confusing to some people. "I selected Belgium and now I see Netherlands and France, where is Belgium gone?". It is also important not to forget about nationalisms. A US citizen may not care to see a Union Jack for English, but I am certain that the opposite can hurt. Countries from former Yugoslavia speak languages that are very close to each other, at least from a foreigner point of view. But don't even try to show them the neighbor's flag for their language...
If there is a need to specify country as well, then you should avoid using flags for language, but that's a separate issue. And it doesn't matter if there are similar languages. Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian are written differently and have different words. Even if Bosnians can understand most Croatian, you'd still have to name the translation appropriately as Bosnian. And while cultural customs ought to be observed, there's no need to pander to intolerance. Just because North and South Korea hate each other doesn't mean they need their own language options.
I don't believe you *can* represent languages graphically. I refuse to use websites that use the Stars and Stripes to represent the English language (or the hybrid UK/US flag) and will not buy from them - this is a highly emotive issue so best avoided!
I'm happy to have someone expressing this emotive issue. I took exactly your case as an example in the comments of my question. No, a language can probably not be represented graphically, and certainly not with flags.
@Lèse — Certainly not. A Belgian person does not have to click on the flag of France to get french language. An Austrian person does not have to click on the flag of Germany to get german language. And an Irish citizen certainly does not want to click on the UK flag to get english language.
@Mart — The “close” languages of Yugoslavia are even more than close, they are the same language. For susceptible nationalists, there are croation and serbian. But, for linguists, there is serbo-croatian.
@Nicolas Barbulesco - I don't see your point here. How close languages are is not relevant. The fact that the user understands what is written is not enough. He has to feel you are speaking to him, not to his neighbor. Otherwise let's write only English, "everybody understands it".
@Mart — Well, you said English. Americans don't say : “English ? I don't know that. I am not from England. I am from the United States of America, I speak American.” Mexicans don't say that either, they don't call their language Mexican, they call their language Spanish — only one Bush doesn't know that. This is exactly the issue at play for Serbo-Croatian, called “Serbian” and “Croatian”, and even “Bosnian” and “Montenegrin” !
I think we're going off topic. The question is about how to direct the user to a content that is either in his language or matches his country. I'd be glad to discuss with you about linguistic, but privately.
That 2013 winner is a pretty good icon. If they wanted it adopted, why wouldn't they offer it up for free in many formats? Instead, we get a lossy JPEG with a white background.
Perhaps just the opposite of what you wanted but we have in a few cases of municipalities with diverse ethnicities resorted to displaying the top languages by name and adding a globe icon for other translations.
You could also try making icons with abbreviations of the language name next the actual name.
From your examples I conclude that you can't avoid putting the language name? I somehow dislike the idea of having a list of unreadable names (as you put them in their respective language).
Your solution with language abbreviation is the most acceptable as you can find the same in Windows standard language toolbar. Not because it is from Microsoft but because most people have seen it like that.
You can also make intelligent guesses as to which languages you display by default based on the user's browser settings and IP location. For example, for a user that is likely from Canada, you could display English and French by default and leave everything else under the globe icon.
We ended up doing something similar by finding the most commonly spoken foreign languages for our user-base, then spelling "translate" in each.