The Language Barrier: cultural and linguistic challenges in the design of global learning.

I was in an estate agent’s office yesterday, sorting out a letting agreement, when i noticed a conversation taking place next to me. There was a father and his eight or nine year old daughter, speaking Turkish with an Agent. The father clearly didn’t speak any English and they were relying on the daughter, sat there, wide eyed, in her school uniform, to translate. In an effort to help, the Agent was speaking very loudly and slowly, the universal approach to patronising children.

Whether their communication was successful or not i couldn’t tell and, by the look of it, neither could the girl. But it made me think about the design and translation of global learning solutions and the challenges and constraints that we can face.

Communication relies on commonality: the more we share, the more we have in common, the easier it is to communicate. Speaking the same language is handy, but sharing the same values, the same knowledge, the same history, all these things have a bearing. Metaphor and analogy are highly culturally sensitive, but so are values and storytelling.

There are some simple challenges to translation: understanding that some languages take a longer or shorter amount of time to say the same thing can impact on how we design a learning solution. For example, working recently on an animation that was translated, we needed to retime the images for some languages as they needed to go more slowly. But there are questions to address beyond this. For example, different cultures and countries have different attitudes to male and female roles. Whatever we think about this from an equality point of view, we need to be aware of the potential impact. Solutions can easily lose credibility and impact if they fail to reflect the everyday reality of their target audience, and the realism of gender roles is a part of this story.

Cultural differences are not incidental to the success of a learning solution, they are central to it and it’s something that is extremely tricky to get right. In fact, i am tempted to say that it’s impossible to get it totally right: whilst you can share core messaging and information globally, the subtleties of cultural and linguistic differences mean that it will forever feel slightly bland or slightly forced. Or at least, it will if we just go down a simple translation path.

There are alternatives, allowing regions or individual countries to take core messaging but to author their own words around it. This kind of decentralised responsibility for language, based around agreed core messaging, increases cost and complexity of projects and runs the risk that messages ‘creep’ away from your control, but it can result in greater local engagement.

There is an argument that the global model is fundamentally flawed, that cultural differences, legal variations and languages are so varied and rich that it’s impossible to construct common messaging, although that might be one negative step too far.

My own view is that translated learning, which includes space for localised messaging is a good, robust approach. This allows us to control core messaging, but also allows regions to put their own slant and context on things. It feels like a mature and robust approach, with limited cost implications and limited risk.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Culture, E-Learning, Global, Language, Learning, Nuance, Translation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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