Coding for the world, part 8: Politics and your involvement

My blog entries about localization started so innocently: talking about separation issues, recycling, and money. Today it is politics. Don’t get too excited, I am not here to talk about how the political system could be improved or about the status quo. I am for sure having an opinion, but today we are talking about geopolitical issues when it comes to coding and localization (hope you are not disappointed now).

A country is not necessarily a sovereign state, but can be a region within such a state. Or it could be a sovereign state, but not acknowledged by others as such. These considerations have consequences for how you design language options in your apps and websites. 

The trouble with using flags

I have seen flags used wrongfully for language pickers. Flags represent a country or region. Countries and regions are not identical to languages. Take India, for example. India consists of many states and territories, and the Constitution of India lists 22 official languages; hundreds more are spoken there. Which flag would you choose and for what language?

Consider the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England: do you know the difference between them? If you have English content, which flag would you choose to add: the Union Jack? St. George’s Cross? The Irish Bratach na hÉireann? The Saltire? All of them? How would that appear to users from Canada? The US? Singapore? They’re all English-speaking countries as well. If you just add the US flag for English, it could be taken as ignorant or even offensive.

Flags can also be an accessibility issue; tiny flag icons can be hard to distinguish for people with color blindness.

Similar issues can occur when using maps with country and region borders. Place names or boundaries may be disputed. A solution could be to show maps in accordance with the IP address. That way, you make everyone in your audience happy and you avoid angry messages.

These issues can become super critical when political tension is involved. Think of China, Taiwan, and Tibet. If you want to launch your content and products in other countries and regions, you need to be mindful of how these locales will view your content or risk that your content may be blocked for millions of potential customers.

Keep it simple with language names

The solution is a drop-down menu with language names. A best practice is to write each language in its own native language. For an icon on the main page to lead to a language picker page, you can always use a globe icon. You can also set up the logic to detect the selected language of the user’s browser.

Another geopolitical issue can be entry fields and country pickers labeled only with Country. If you have a country drop-down menu labeled only with “Country”, but you list, for example, Gibraltar and Kosovo … well, there is trouble ahead. It can lead to negative marketing of your product or even banishment in certain countries. Always label such fields with “Country/Region” to cover it all.

See you hopefully next time, when I talk about casing, space, and commotion behind the scenes. Until then, sunny greetings from the linguist that you can trust!

Note: Thanks to Carlos Barbero-Cortés of DocuSign for consultation and feedback.

Additional resources

Bettina Becker
Bettina Becker
Sr. Language Manager
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