For English, click on the English flag

In countries with more than one official or main language, we have to make choices about our language use when accessing services with some kind of digital interface. Most ATMs in Wales will compel you to make a choice between Welsh and English. Lloyds, perhaps, rather aggressively, asks you whether you’d like make a transaction in Welsh, forcing those who would like English to answer “no thanks” or Welsh speakers to answer hoffwn I would. It’s hoped that soon we won’t have to make these choices so often, partly because it doesn’t look like there’ll be any banks or ATMS left in Wales soon anyway, but also because technology will remember our initial choice on apps, ATMS and websites and so we won’t have to make a declaration every time we interact electronically with an institution.

Some multilingual organizations have multiple social media pages for their different linguistic customers and so delete the need for language selection. Estonian customers complain about cancelled flights to the airline’s Estonian Facebook page, whilst Lithuanian customers vent their frustration or like pictures of teddy bears looking out of plane windows via the airline’s Lithuanian social media mouthpiece.

But what happens when an organization decides to have one website or one social media channel and try to please all its customers at the same time? In bilingual output like Facebook pages and Twitter, choices still have to be made at some level. Which language to put first? How to signal the start of a different language in the same post? How to signal language choices in links?

Last year the people of Wales waved goodbye and/or celebrated the end of Arriva Trains Wales’ presence in Wales. A new not-for-profit transport company is now running the railroad show in Wales. Great news! What isn’t great is their social media output. It’s not the content that’s the problem (it’s as dull as anything else any other transport company generates), it’s their strange use of symbols for language choices

Screenshot 2019-05-05 at 12.57.58 - Edited.png
Facebook post from Transport for Wales, 1st May 1019

All their posts that contain links to Welsh and English versions of web pages are prefixed by either an English flag or a Welsh flag. The Saint George’s cross if you want to read it in English and y ddraig goch if you want to read the content in Welsh.

This might seem like something and nothing, but the use of national flags for language choice is deeply problematic. The Welsh Language Commissioner’s official guidance is against their use altogether. What do national flags signify? They denote a nation, country or people. The red cross denotes England, it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, denote English. English is spoken natively by an incredible number of people all over the world in many different countries- we can’t count them all because that would be impossible, but conservative estimates (1) are at somewhere between 360-400 million speakers. Would it make sense for people in Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Hong Kong or South Africa to select a St George’s cross to read something in English? English doesn’t belong to England- it may have originated from there, but now the world owns it. And it’s exactly the same for other languages. Which flag would you pick for the following languages?

  1. Spanish: spoken in (to name but a few) the Philippines, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba.
  2. Portuguese: spoken in natively or by a significant number in (to name but a few) Brazil, Macau, São Tomé and Príncipe,
  3. French: spoken in (to name by a few) Canada, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Switzerland
  4. German: spoken in Austria & Switzerland

But what about the particular case of Wales. What’s the problem here? For lots of people in Wales, English is their first and only language. But these monolingual English speakers are still Welsh and they are still represented by Wales’ flag. The Welsh flag, and any other Welsh thing from lovespoons and Eisteddfodau to rugby matches and lava bread, belong to everyone, whether you had the privilege to grow up in a bilingual environment or not. There’s something simply accidentally nasty about using these flags. They don’t, I believe, signal two benign linguistic options, they are forcing the user to make a declaration: “click here if you can speak Welsh” or “click here if you’re not Welsh”.

What’s the way out then? How should Transport for Wales represent these languages without being exclusive or, possibly offensive? It’s easy, what about a simple CY for Welsh and EN for English. Or perhaps just put both without any heralding or announcing symbol before them and just let people read the ones they want! Whatever we choose to do with language choices, we absolutely must not tie these choices to national or cultural identity through the use of symbols such as flags.

  1. Crystal, David (2006). “Chapter 9: English worldwide”. In Denison, David; Hogg, Richard M. (eds.). A History of the English language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 420–439. ISBN 978-0-511-16893-2.

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