Choose your own language

One of my favourite sites is AirBnB. I like the concept, I like their design and I have used it to book accommodation for almost all of our trips while we have been in Europe. Sometimes the site switches to German from my profile selection of English which is a minor pain but it also brought home an interesting function of the website: the language picker.

On AirBnB, the language dropdown (or, dropup, actually) uses native language names or characters and the only icon is a globe on the actual dropdown. This struck me as interesting given the emphasis on colour throughout the rest of the site. This function felt a little boring and I wondered why they don’t use flags as I have seen elsewhere.

AirBnB language picker
AirBnB language picker

Then I thought about it a bit more and realised why using flags might be such a phenomenally stupid idea: language doesn’t belong to country. Sure French is spoken in France, but it’s also spoken in half of Belgium (and the other half speaks Dutch, aka Flemish!), large parts of Canada and throughout African nations. English is native to England, but also the main language of Australia and New Zealand. German is spoken in Switzerland, Austria and even parts of Italy.

I couldn’t find a quick example of using icons to switch languages, although I have seen it in corporate environments. I then noticed that Duolingo (an app that I currently use!) uses flags to select the language that you want to learn. I find this decision very curious!

Learn a language with Duolingo
Learn a language with Duolingo

Another example that I am sure I have seen but can’t immediately find an example of is using the language name, but formatting the name in the current language. Some examples of this could be to list “German, Norwegian, French” in the language options when the language is set to English. These obviously make immediate sense to an English speaker, but someone who speaks Français may take a fraction longer to find their language in the menu, and get annoyed in the process!

I’ve learned a couple of things here. The first is quite specific: use the native language name and use characters where possible when putting together a language selector. The second is to be curious about the usability choices on websites as I navigate around: you can learn a lot by comparing and contrasting the same essential features across different sites.

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