Five things to remember about training a multilingual workforce.

An international workforce requires a thoughtful approach to training.

30 June 2024Blog11 min

We’re living – and working – through a dynamic time in business culture. The evolution of technology and the competitive landscape incentivise businesses to invest in employee training. At the same time, the shrinking world means those businesses are more likely to have employees from a variety of cultures and with a variety of first languages. So, what does that mean for HR and L&D professionals? Here are five things to keep in mind when choosing training courses for your team.

1. We learn better in our mother tongue.

While this is especially true for childhood education, it’s so potent for adults that it’s one of UNESCO’s best practices for educationalinstitutions. Learning in your native language improves both understanding and retention of the topic. Thisdoesn’t just lead to better outcomes and employee performance but alsobetter workplace dynamics. Offering your team training in their mother tongue can help create a more inclusive space, which can increase your team’s engagement and motivation.

2. Translation ≠ Localisation

Just as there’sa big difference between a word-for-word translation and one that conveys nuances, there’s a huge gap between simple translation and localisation. One popular example is the Pixar movie Inside Out, in which the main characters are a girl’s emotions. There’s an ongoing theme of disgust for broccoli throughout her. Pixar translated the movie, so all of the dialogue in those scenes had a colloquial feel and wasn’t just a word-for-word translation. And audiences still didn’t get it.

Audience research revealed that Japanese kids tend to like broccoli, so the scenes didn’t land as intended. To localise the scene, they changed both the dialogue and the animation to refer to green peppers, which are almost universally disliked by children in Japan. (Apparently, they’re harvested earlier, so they’re much more bitter than green bell peppers in Europe and the US.)

The broccoli scene had been well translated, but without localisation, it didn’t have its intended impact. The same is true with learning material.

3. Culture can affect learning style.

An entire field of study is devoted to ways of learning, so you can’t define an individual solely by their country of origin. However, it is also broadly true that different countries tend towards different styles. One helpful way to break this downis using the four pairs of characteristics on the Felder and Silverman spectrum.

Active learners retaininformation best by working to apply the content while reflective learners prefer to think through information and theories. Some people learn better through words while others understand more through visual elements like graphs and diagrams. Sensing learners methodically review facts and data to understand a concept while intuitive learners prefer to engage with theories and find new applications. Finally, sequential learners like to work in small and logical steps while global learners prefer to start with the big picture before breaking it down.

It’s not just individuals who fall along different places in these four spectrums; cultures also tend to gravitate in specific directions. For example, we see that German audiences, overall, prefer thorough explanations, detailed instructions, and extensive sources. While other cultures tend to prefer holistic storytelling with lots of visual elements. Each member of your team is unique, but their cultural context defined their schooling, which may impact how they learn.

4. Localisation isn’t one-size-fits-all.

One of the keys to localisation is knowing when to intervene and when to leave it alone. Here in Western Europe, we get a lot of content from the US and the UK, but we ideally shouldn’t know when something has been localised. For example, there was a British TV show where a guy talked about fish and chips. The Spanish translator changed the line to refer to paella. In another context, that might have been a useful change. However, it jumped out as incongruousin a show about British life.

A smoother example of localisation comes from the Terminator movies. If you watched it in English, you might remember that his catchphrase is: “Hasta la vista, baby.” Technically, a Spanish translator would just need to translate the word baby. Hasta la vista is an everyday phrase in those countries, however, so this would drain the phrase of its punch. The Spanish versions of the movies use: “Sayonara, baby.”

Even one of our GoodHabitzcourses needed adaptation in a metaphor for being under pressure. It started in the UK with a slide of a footballer shooting towards a goal and referenced penalty shootouts. Football fans or not, most Brits would be aware of their country’s poor track record in those shootouts. We kept the slide for our Mexican training, but we changed the context to Mexico’s history of getting knocked out in the quarterfinals. Neither would work for India, though, so we changed the image and text to refer to the final shot in cricket.

5. Find what your team needs.

When you’re looking for a new training course, start by talking to your team. Find out what they need in terms of language and cultural background. Then find a provider who can cater to those needs. It’s really important with multicultural teams that the core learning of each training remains the same. The only thing that should differ is the details and the delivery.

One way to assess a course’s localisation is in the balance between stereotypes and cultural sensitivity. Do they assume that everything applies to all people at all times? Or do they understand that culture is broad and changes over time? How often do they review their material to make sure it’s still relevant and accessible? Do their specialists still live in the country in question? Ultimately, localisation is an exercise in empathy, where specialists try to reach as many people as possible within a given area. Their understanding of the culture as it changes deeply affects how well they do that.

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas for when you look for courses for your multicultural workforce. It may take a little more work to find the best course provider for you, but you will see the payoff in employee performance in the short term, as well as morale and retention in the long term.

Want to listen to
the full podcast episode?

Discover more of María Rosales' insights, tips and tricks in our podcast episode 'Mastering multilingual workforce training'.

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