To localise or not to localise L&D content. That is the question…

Training that is locally sensitive drives engagement, understanding, inclusivity and better learner outcomes. I spoke to L&D experts to see what impact language and culture has on training global teams and they shared their top tips for localising global training content – even when you’re delivering it in English.

*This is part of a longer blog, ‘International training: top tips for localising L&D content’, which you can read here.

Taking the English first approach 

Using English as the dominant corporate language is a popular choice for global organisations that feel they neither have the budget or time for translations. However, Richard Sullivan, experienced in leading international L&D programmes at Ernst & Young (EY), offers a word of warning: “In assuming that everybody speaks English, there’s an assumption that people would also understand the cultural differences in language”.

Lydia Charilaou, Head of L&D at Olam Cocoa, warned that delivering training in English can alienate junior employees. “They get left behind because their English language levels are not as advanced as those who are more senior.”

Even when you are aware of cultural differences and adapt your English training accordingly, you can still face trouble. Steve Stimson, an L&D Consultant, shared his experience at a major gaming company. The company decided to keep the training material in English across the UK, US and Japanese markets. Steve localised the content for the Japanese market, ensuring it was succinct and to the point. However, the Japanese team still did not grasp all of the key information so it was requested that the content be translated.

Whilst keeping training content in English may save some time and costs initially, it could backfire. If learners feel disconnected or disengaged, like the games company, you may have to start again.

How do you adapt English training for non-native speakers? 

We asked our experts this question and they shared some great suggestions.

  1. Even when you’re using English, “Think Global”

Jill Thorne, L&D Business Partner at HCL Insurance BPO Services, stresses the importance of thinking on a global scale about who will be receiving the training. She states that it’s “important to ask for feedback from overseas teams before a global rollout”.

Francesqua Bragg, Principal L&D Consultant, Frank Recruitment Group, shared a similar piece of advice. She encourages running through the training content with someone who speaks the language of the people you’re delivering it to. She says you’ll likely find that “certain aspects will need to be adapted.”

  1. Remember some words don’t directly translate

Anthony Gibson, shared how there were times when he was training in English in Poland and realised that he needed to adjust his language. For example, using words such as “request” and changing it to “ask for” and when talking about a “pay rise” explaining “more money” within the same sentence made it much easier for participants to understand. Also explaining words such as “hypothetically” can help to avoid real-life situations being discussed.

Kat Ingman, Senior L&D Consultant at Frank Recruitment Group, had a similar experience. She discussed how certain English phrases aren’t easily interpreted for other cultures like ‘peace of mind’. “It’s important to give participants time to discuss how they would get the same point across but in a way which is appropriate in their language. This can slow the training down, but it’s vital to have these discussions so that they can implement their learnings in real-life scenarios.”

  1. Do sweat the small stuff when it comes to localisation 

Monica Mehta, L&D Advisor, shared how, although the language of the firm is English, a lot of work goes into getting cultural nuances right. “Together, the trainer, regional MD and HR team look at training content and decide what needs changing to ensure it’s culturally relevant. Some changes are very simple, for example changing the currency signs from £ to $ in the Asian market.” In Monica’s experience, just seeing the £ can reduce engagement as the person thinks “this training isn’t designed for me”.

Dharmesh Chauhan, Senior Digital Learning Consultant at Domestic & General also highlights the importance of localising visuals. “Images carry a meaning so the replacement image must carry the same meaning.” It’s also really important to bear in mind that images or phrases may have political or cultural connotations in other countries and may need to be adapted.

  1. Use native language for recaps and breakout exercises 

Francesqua Bragg highlighted the importance of not ignoring other languages when delivering training in English. “By allowing people to speak in their native language it helps with inclusion.”

But, if translating all training isn’t an option, you might consider the following advice from one of the L&D experts with whom we spoke. She makes sure a “senior member of staff in each office also runs a recap session in their own language.” She also advises sharing takeaway information sheets and leaving content on the screen for longer.

Joan Keevill, Director at Designs on Learning and Chair of the eLearning Network, shared how even if your training is in English, there is still space for the native language. Joan mentioned how when delivering workshops in China and Brazil, when it came to talking in groups, participants spoke in their own language. This may have helped to keep them engaged and focus on the topic and activities.

What impact does speaking your learner’s language have? 

Steve Stimson believes that “it is more respectful to translate and it can be seen as lazy to keep content in English.” If your learners feel valued, they are more likely to engage with the content. Translating L&D content will help international employees feel valued within your organisation.

Lydia Charilaou agrees that language can help with belonging and inclusivity. “Language has a big impact on engagement – it’s about a sense of belonging. From an inclusion perspective, if I see that people are speaking my language, I can relate to others and I can see that the organisation is making an effort to make content more accessible to me. I’m then going to feel more engaged with the organisation as a whole.”

“For certain groups having translated content certainly does help to engage them,” says Louise Tirre, Enterprise Capability Lead, Global Learning and Development at Mondelez International. Louise commented that they see a higher take up of LinkedIn Learning courses which are available in the native languages of their global teams, particularly their sales teams. “Removing the language barrier enables teams to engage with learning content”.

Training that delivers the best outcomes must engage the learner. Ian Sanders witnessed this first-hand. Ian was delivering training for a major bank in English and noticed the learners didn’t seem completely connected. He then began to interpret the content into French and German. He saw the blank faces change immediately. By speaking their language, he increased the learning outcomes and engagement with the content.

It’s not just learners who benefit from engagement – it helps the bottom line as well. Companies with strong employee engagement have 3.9x the earnings per share growth rate compared to their competitors.

When time and budget are tight, what content is the most important to translate? 

It’s not always possible, or necessary to fully translate content. We asked our experts what they felt was the most important.

In a previous role, Dan Willson, now Digital Learning Consultant at SIG, decided to only translate content for the highest performing subsidiaries – French, German, Czech. To get the best ROI, they invested in these higher-performing countries so they would achieve the same performance as the top-ranking UK team.

Shani Efford-Eliraz, Senior Consultant at OrgWRK, suggests using a blended approach. For example, she ran a session, in English, for both native and non-native speakers. However, she made sure all engagement material was translated. That way there was an “emotional hook which was appropriate for their culture and delivered the right message”.

When translation and localisation shortcuts don’t work 

Translation technology can be helpful when it comes to reducing turnaround times and costs. But, a machine first approach isn’t best for every type of translation. We’d recommend only using it for documents that won’t be widely published or that aren’t emotive (like FAQs).

Dan Willson has been let down by software before. He warned that “having tried Google and speech to text apps, my advice now would be to seek help from professional linguists early on in the process. Trying to cut corners only uses up time and speaking with a professional translation agency at first would have saved us a lot of time.”

Steve Stimson had a similar problem when using a plug-in to complete verbatim translations. He found that markets like China were very unhappy with the results. In the end, they switched to human translations working with local agents to produce the translations.

Should you work with a translation partner?

We’re a little biased on this one, so we’ll just share what our experts had to say.

Ian Sanders shared his experience of relying solely on internal team members for any necessary translations. He said it was difficult to chase colleagues for overdue translations, and this affected internal politics. In the end, he decided to centralise translations and used an agency for complex jobs or languages outside their scope.

Our suggestion is to work with local colleagues for feedback and reviewing translations. Shani Efford-Eliraz seconds this, particularly if you are using machine translation in the process. “It’s important to send the content to the people who’ll use it as additional post-editing and proofreading may be required.” Of course, a translation partner can also provide this service.

Like Ian, Shani has turned to agencies to support her in translating training content. She offers the advice that if you do work with an agency, “stick with the same one”. That way they have a “growing understanding of the business and the language used.”

This is something that we feel very strongly about at Comtec. A good translation partner will use translation memory software to enhance glossaries of terminology, as well as helping you to create style guides and any other reference material. With these tools you can ensure consistency and quality, all whilst speeding up the process.

Thank you to Richard Sullivan, Anthony Gibson, Lydia Charilaou, Steve Stimson, Jill Thorne, Francesqua Bragg, Kat Ingman, Monica Mehta, Dharmesh Chauhan, Joan Keevill, Louise Tirre, Shani Efford-Eliraz, Ian Sanders and Dan Willson and for their contributions to this article.

If you need help translating or localising your L&D programmes, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

P.S. If you want to start using multilingual training, or localising your L&D programmes, but need help convincing stakeholders – take a look here at our mini-guide to help build your business case.


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