Website Language Selection

Published 07 May 2008 in Usability by ZigPress

You will all have visited websites that present their content in more than one language – and they allow you to select the language in some way. Right now I’m struggling to find examples, but here are some of the more common options:

1. A special front page presenting language options

2. A series of flags on every page (or at least primary pages)

3. A series of translated names with separators (e.g. English | Francais | Deutsch )

4. A drop-down box

5. Some kind of ‘world’ icon with a link saying something like ‘Change Language’ (usually in English)

6. Like option 3, but using ISO codes (e.g. EN | FR | DE )

Because this is a vital usability issue, I would have expected to see many erudite blogs and usability articles about it – however, after a protracted bout of surfing, I only found one article that was any use (mind you, it’s a good one, particularly comment 29): Indicating language choice: flags, text, both, neither?.

I referred to this article when designing the EntroPay user interface, and ended up using option 3 from the above list, for these reasons:

Option 1: interferes with user flow, especially when trying to ‘funnel’ users through a sign-up process.

Option 2: You try getting a Mexican to click a Spanish flag to see a page in their language. ‘But I’m not Spanish, I’m Mexican, and proud to be Mexican! Goddamn gringo reactionary website, etc.’

Option 4: If a drop-down box defaults to ‘English’ and you only read Korean script, you will not see the Korean word for ‘Korean’ anywhere on the page unless you start clicking at random.

Option 5: Same problem as option 4.

Option 6: Useful if space is at a premium, but the elegance breaks for non-Roman alphabets.

I had to revisit the issue recently as the list of languages offered by EntroPay is soon due to expand, and so I again toyed with the other options above, along with some other icon-based solutions, in order to save some space on-screen.

However, at the end of the day, I find that I still believe option 3 is the most usable and sensible way to go, so I’ll just have to move some nearby content elsewhere instead.

Post comments with any unusual or innovative language selection methods you’ve found!

17 Comments

  1. On 05 Oct 2009 at 16:40, Best Bingo Offers said:

    I prefer the flag option – simply because it draws the eye really well.

  2. On 07 Oct 2009 at 13:55, estetik said:

    I prefer only flags for language selection. Useful and takes a small place.

  3. On 04 Nov 2009 at 01:52, Banner Advertising said:

    Flags are the best choice. It’s a great idea use several languages but it creates a whole new problem for SEO…

    I wish I knew Chinese, reason being there a hundreds of millions of Chinese users and there would be plenty of benefit if you could somehow monetize or squeeze money from it.

  4. On 15 Nov 2009 at 18:21, Spas said:

    Intended using flags, but now swayed to option three at the top of the page, will take up less space.

    Thx

  5. On 01 Feb 2010 at 03:09, Ceccil said:

    My option at Flags, more familiar.

  6. On 30 Sep 2010 at 20:57, Premium Links Directory said:

    I prefer the flag option.

  7. On 05 Oct 2010 at 06:01, Tech Gadget review said:

    It’ll be fun if the system is able to detect the traffic location and automatically changes the language settings

  8. On 19 Nov 2010 at 13:01, Mercedes limo Chicago said:

    Hi experts,

    I am creating a web site for a large company and they want the user to choose either Greek or English. I do know about asp.net localization etc but the content is coming from a database and is not static content.

    At the moment my database tables are like this.

    page_id, page_id_en, page_id_el

    And i wanto draw out the information based on user selection. At the moment i am using cookies so when the user selects greek it will get the greek content. I think cookies are o.k but obviously some users turn them off.

    What is the best way to achieve this ? is it cookies or something else? i know microsofts web sites are like this http://www.microsoft.com/FR/thispage etc.. is this a good way?

  9. On 30 Jan 2011 at 19:39, Euro Travel said:

    Flags are definitely the best to select languages. I’m considering adding multi-language options to some of my sites, will let you know how I get on.

  10. On 11 Apr 2011 at 16:45, William Delvalle said:

    Flag as the symbol for every language is fine but I don’t know all the flags around the world so it’s much better if there will be a flag plus the name of the country so I can also easily identify the language that I want.

  11. On 15 Apr 2011 at 10:20, Chris said:

    Flags are the worst!
    I am from Belgium. We have 3 languages in Belgium. You can’t use the belgian flag for this. And I hate it to have to search for a French or Dutch flag to select the language (they look alike and can’t recall them, there not my collors…).
    Also for English: do you use UK or USA flag? I just want plain english and I have no preference for either.
    Option 3 is my absolute preferred way.
    I guess “context” (who are my visitors?) is really importent to decide for each option.

  12. On 15 Apr 2011 at 10:21, Chris said:

    For belgian sites we also often use option 6.

  13. On 02 May 2011 at 04:21, Emil said:

    I agreed with the flag option. Yet, when I read Chris’ comment, I think back about it and find that the problem is feasible. For English, there might be two flags and these will be inefficient. Now I think option 3 and 6 are will be nice.

  14. On 07 Jul 2011 at 04:44, Beauty said:

    Intended using flags, but now swayed to option three at the top of the page, will take up less space.I think back about it and find that the problem is feasible. Thanks for sharing.

  15. On 18 Aug 2012 at 10:06, Bob said:

    Great article. From a usability perspective, when I go to EntroPay the default language is “English” but the user is still given the option to select the English language

  16. On 13 Mar 2013 at 13:46, Sioned said:

    Flags are definitely problematic for the Mexican/Spanish and so many other people that speak tha same language but don’t identify with the Country – which is what a flag does. I’m trying to look for any official guidance note or anything similar to use within my organisation – if anyone’s got anything, id be gratfeul (I realise this is an old post…)