Flags are not languages (Easyjet website is wrong)

Easyjet have recently changed their website. Now you get a language selection screen. So far so good I guess (for a website).

But unfortunately instead of just the names of languages, there are flags as well.

The flags on this page may look colourful, but having them there is WRONG.

I’m not being pedantic here. It is simply wrong.

If you don’t get the flag screen when you visit easyjet.com and you want to see it, it may be because of your browser’s language setting. (In Firefox for instance, go to Tools | Options | Content | Languages.)

Failing that, look for and delete a browser cookie that stores Easyjet’s language setting. (In Firefox for instance, go to Tools | Options | Privacy | Show Cookies then search for “easyjet”.)

Here’s a slightly dated but classic web page about flags and languages (summary: don’t).

I’m not going to point out every case of this, but when a big company does it then it’s closer to becoming a de facto standard. It has an influence on other people and companies. This isn’t a particular beef with Easyjet, it’s just a clear example of this problem. My patience here is flagging. Etc.

22 Replies to “Flags are not languages (Easyjet website is wrong)”

  1. Interesting. Putting aside the fact that you don’t like it, I am betting that you knew which flag to click on. Isn’t that the point of the use of flags as icons?

  2. You’re just annoyed there’s no welsh option 🙂

    I find it more irritating that some of them are the names of the languages and some are the names of the countries, in english! Eg: Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia…

    Seriously though, I’ve heard this argument before, but I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with the flags (except when you get the bastard mutant british/american hybrid flag to represent english). They don’t represent languages really but everyone knows what it means, and they’re a useful visual aid, and if in doubt, the name of the language is there too (in most cases).

  3. English is the main language spoken in the UK, USA, Australia and many other countries. Portuguese is the main language spoken in Portugal, Brazil and a few other countries. Spanish is spoken in Spain, Mexico, the US and much of the Americas.

    Flags are pointless because languages are not tied to countries. There are more English speakers in the US than anywhere else so you could argue that English should be represented by the US flag. Mexico (and the US, again!) has more Spanish speakers than Spain so the same rule applies.

    It’s rather ironic that a company that transports people across the world doesn’t understand that culture travels too and that their own service has helped blurred boundaries and reduced the link between language and geography.

  4. When you see a table of flags such as the one on the easyjet site, you immediately know what it is they are trying to say (ie, pick which language you want)

    And, what’s more, you know which flag to click on.

    Whether or not it is semantically correct is beside the point – it’s become convention and is well understood by users.

  5. I mean you could argue that the “woman” symbol outside women’s toilets is also wrong because not all women wear dresses; likewise some blokes wear skirts e.g. scottish

  6. Carl’s right. It’s a de facto standard, doesn’t make it acceptable. Belgium, Switzerland and Austria are all big European countries without their own individual languages, and are left out on this page due to lazy/thoughtless design.

  7. You can’t link flags to languages. You might say that showing a Welsh flag means the ‘Welsh language’ but on a bilingual site that would mean the English version showing the Union Flag, which many Welsh people would object to.

    As another example, what do you choose in Canada? The Canadian flag could be claimed by both French and English speakers. The French flag might be appropriate but the Union Flag to choose English is illogical.

    Outside the UK/US most countries are significantly more multingual. You can’t link languages to geography either in most cases. Easyjet have solved this in a strange way. If you choose ‘French’ it’s not a site for users in France as you’d expect but for French speakers. You get a mixture of targeted ads and prices, in both Euro and Swiss Franc.

    They might be pretty little icons, but flags are largely pointless in selecting a site’s language choice.

  8. “the “woman” symbol outside women’s toilets is also wrong”

    Hah! You’re right. And not all disabled people are in wheelchairs; not all old people use a walking stick as they cross the road; not all workmen are digging into a big pile of indeterminate material.

    Is generalisation sometimes necessary?

  9. I agree with Mark and Liam, and don’t really care about some of the moot points they make.

    Flags have been a *de facto* standard for language representation on the web for years. It only matters to individuals – truth be told – if the flag doesn’t represent their region/country/place/pub etc.

    Plus, it doesn’t (nor has it ever) mattered to the very vast majority of internet users, who would rather get on with booking their holiday than fuss over what language to book it in (maybe it’s actually because the majority are English speakers, but I don’t care to dwell on that in this argument).

    Hell, given a Welsh-language version of the website, I’d probably still click on the union jack/stars and stripes because they’d give me less of a trans-lingual headache (that is to say, English versions of *all* websites are easier to understand than Welsh ones).

    Gents, why not concentrate efforts on the lingual standards of websites that already offer substandard multilingual content, instead of having a go at iconography that has been used for roughly 15 years?

  10. @Dafydd, you don’t think it’s at all appropriate that the language is represented by the flag of the country it originated in (and in fact is named after)?

    Surely a Brazilian (for example)could not be more offended by the flag of Portugal than by the name of the language – Portuguese?

    Are Welsh people really offended by the union flag representing English?

    I can see that this is not ideal but it’s ‘good enough’ isn’t it?

  11. Also, it seems they have changed the language selection on the site. It’s a bit more to your liking now I suppose. Could they (incredibly) be listening to you? 🙂

  12. The arguments in favour of flags appear to be a predictably anglocentric viewpoint. My reasoning is – does it add anything in terms of accessibility or usability other than ’making it pretty’? The answer is no, so what reason is there for adding a flag, if you’ve got the actual language name in plain view? Doing so causes potential confusion and

    There are millions of Spanish speakers in the world that may not identify or even recognise the flag of Spain. The chosen flags are inconsistent anyway.. shouldn’t English be represented by the English flag rather than the Union flag? Ironically the reason is that many ‘English speakers’ don’t recognise St George’s flag or realise that it is the flag of England.

    Given that there is no consistent and agreed standard for linking languages to flags (and try to do so would bring up many inconsistencies), why use flags at all? This is exactly what companies designing for the ‘world-wide’ web do. None of the main search engines or social networking sites use flags, since just using the language name is perfectly appropriate and a much better solution.

    Web designers who were around in 1995 knew it was wrong (and there are recommendations noted in W3C documents). Some of today’s designers are either ignorant or are not bothered to do things right.

  13. Dafydd, how are these view points “typically anglocentric”? I don’t understand what that means. How do you know the linguistic preferences or origins of those that suggested flags and languages are ok? Am I an anglocentric person? Is English my first or only language?

    That is a presumption easily on a par with offering a Union Jack to click on to get English. Or any other flag/language combination, for that matter.

    My point being that we all make presumptions and generalisations in order to get stuff done in life. I can usually work out things like what language I speak and how to get it on a website pretty easily, and I’m sure that’s true of most people. I don’t care what I have to click, and I see absolutely no need for standardisation and control of it. In fact, I think it goes against what makes the net so interesting and exciting: a diversity of ideas and opinions that can be accessed by anyone who cares to do so. Let designers and users do whatever the feel works best for what they are doing.

  14. I see it as an anglocentric viewpoint as it assumes everyone in the world sees things from an English-speaking perspective (that can also happen to Welsh speakers too). Outside the UK and USA most people are bilingual or mulilingual and see the connection of national flags to language as slightly ridiculous and sometimes confusing or offensive.

    Why do you think global companies such as Google, Microsoft or Yahoo avoid the association and don’t use flags?

    I’ve just seen a UK-based site that uses flag icons to direct people to specific pages for their country and I have no issue with that. Whether it’s a help or hindrance I don’t know – my eye tends to be drawn to the text if I’m looking at such a list.

    In the end, this seems to be a techie/designer argument. Technically, it is clearly wrong, but designers are free to make decisions on the whim of the individual.

  15. Thanks for the comments.

    Dafydd nails it by referring to the “world-wide” web. Good approaches to language are part of that and we’re not there yet.

    Language should NOT be tied to country! Any way of doing this reinforces that and influences other people’s perception and other companies’ practice. It takes us further from our ideal.

    When companies get localisation and language right, it’s a better way to do business. It may even confer a competitive advantage in some cases.

    Away from flags, here are some other examples from a French-speaking Swiss perspective.
    (From March 2007, so some things may have changed now.)

    This is the web and anyone can put a page on the web. I did this blog post because I saw something that I wanted to put on the web. Of course I want Easyjet and other people to see it. It’s easy to find. Whether they do or not is up to them.

    Aled, similarly, if you know about lingual standards on websites maybe you could write a blog post about it.

  16. I think it is important in this context to differentiate between languages and countries. Often a company wants to direct visitors to pages that relate to a specific country (irrespective of language) because the pages contain data to do with shipping costs and currencies for that country.

    If I am buying a product in the the US then I want to be taken to pages that give me a US checkout and quote prices in dollars EVEN THOUGH the language I speak is English!

  17. I don’t think easyJet do this anymore, but plenty of other sites do. But I think this is wrong in more than one way: this page shouldn’t be about language specifically, more location. In the context of location (and pricing, departure point), the flag makes sense (although not necessarily for language — i.e. Belgium).

    That said, why even ask the user for their location? Isn’t looking at the IP enough to work that out? And the same goes for language: check the HTTP_ACCEPT field and redirect based on the user language to appropriate content.

  18. I kind of disagree. Flags are not languages, right. However, you can easily identify your language by looking for your flag. I believe that’s the idea behind using them.

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