Designing Content for Multiple Languages and Cultures – Part 1

Designing and planning learning solutions for cross-culture learner cohorts and organisations is one of the toughest challenges the learning designer or strategist is likely to face. Not only will the designer need to factor in multiple languages, social diversity, attitudes and behaviours but also a complexity of underlying practical limitations. Added to this are the individual differences between each learner, the knowledge and skills that each brings to the learning for instance, and what you have is probably the ultimate learning design gauntlet.

How the designer tackles this is, of course, driven by a range of practical factors: is there a VLE involved and if so, what features can it offer? Access to appropriate technology and workable internet speeds are factors particularly with bandwidth hungry content such as live video streaming. What about availability of local trainers and mentors to provide personal support? What about corporate branding and so on? Does each learner have a personal learning record which could potentially be used to ‘tailor’ content relevant to role,responsibility and pre-existing learning achievements? All that even before thinking about subject matter, learning goals, budget and deadline factors.

So, let’s assume that the budget is reasonable, the deadline is workable. The client is looking for something more than a generic broadcast or bland memorisation exercise (frequently inflicted on learners in the course of ‘compliance training’!). So how might the designer approach this?

I personally believe there is no perfect solution. Nor is it a case of simply adapting a format that worked in another context. Each context is unique and has to be approached on its own merits. There is enough evidence from research telling us that what works in one context (as digital learning) has no guarantee of working as well in another.

So how do you get around this? Thinking back to some of the projects I’ve worked on, three stand out for different reasons.

1. Using a universally appealing theme in a video written, produced and directed for a multi-national oil company with a global multi-cultural audience and more than a dozen languages. (The Japanese voice over recording was particularly problematic – we couldn’t figure out why the final bit of script just wouldn’t fit the visuals unless he spoke super-rapidly – a problem solved when he was asked to stop adding his personal contact details to the end of the script!). Despite having a complex message and highly technical subject matter, the video proved a stand-out success. It’s universal appeal and understanding was down to the consistent application of emotionally appealing features – heroes and heroines at work, night and day, battling the elements, dealing with the red tape, solving the day to day challenges. Distinctively, I had a rock opera music score specially created, filmed the musicians playing and wove their images into the story and learning points of the video. The visual narrative underscored and emphasised the learning points of the video.

2. Demonstrating how ‘universally appealing themes’ can go dramatically wrong – an interactive training video as part of a blended package for a nationwide energy firm. The storyline’s action was located in a generically appealing setting (or so we thought): a mannequin business (don’t ask!) and a comedy of manners approach. It was great, everyone including the client loved it and the learning points were powerfully made. The problem? The strong religious contingent in the workforce objected to naked female mannequins. Bin. This stands as an example of what happens when you mistakenly apply your own attitudes, beliefs and opinions thinking the world at wide shares them!

3. Focusing on ‘place-based learning approaches’. My client wanted a sophisticated online competency assessment program for a national cohort. As a workplace competency assessment tool the content had to be located into ‘real life scenarios’ that learners might encounter, the challenge being to problem-solve how best they would deal with them. This was back in March this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic crisis was building fast. What had been taken as ‘real life scenarios’ started to look very unreal as contexts that learners might never actually encounter (not for some time anyhow, nor without significant changes to the workplace and work procedures which we couldn’t guess at). The solution? Locate the entire thing in an orbiting space station with learners engaging in pretty much the same sort of problem-solving challenges they might encounter in a regular earthbound place of work. Hugely successful, very simple, and gave the graphics designers some interesting challenges to work with.

In each case, a different technique was applied. So how does that help with the fictional challenge we started out with? Well, there are two universal facts that can be relied on and these pretty much apply to almost every learning project. First, that all learners will be located within the same corporate (institutional) culture irrespective of where they are, their language, or their social cultural background. Second, all humans are fundamentally designed to learn. We are learning all the time, and if we’re not learning something, then we are mostly bored.

There are also a couple of universal limitations that we need to factor in mainly due to the trade-offs of human evolution. We might have a (so far as we know) an endless capacity to our long term memory and an automatic learning disposition, but we also all have extremely poor working memories (the bit of the mind that deals with the here and now), and we have the attention span of a gnat. Really. We can mostly only focus on one thing at a time. If we’re not attending to something then it won’t get beyond that notoriously fickle working memory to end up stored in our long term memory (from which it can be recalled on demand). These are human performance factors that are fundamental to learning design.

Some people get around these limitations by emphasising ‘memorisation’ using techniques designed to maximise the efficient recording of facts and practices so they can be reliably recalled when needed. Memorisation is one form of learning but, I suggest, it’s a support not a be-all-and-end-all. It really is more suited to students cramming for exams (if they had the option to sit them). But does the memorisation technique focus attention? Well, attention is as fickle as working memory: witness the famous ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment in which half the watching research participants in an audience didn’t spot the person walking through a group of people tossing balls to each other – thumping his chest – because they’d been tasked with watching the ball. So, when we talk about ‘engaging the learner’s attention’, simply engaging their attention is actually not enough.

In part 2 of the article, Lesley will take you through her ‘tried and tested’ approach and gives you some different perspectives to consider. Part 2 is coming in Septembers newsletter.

About the author

Lesley Crane PhD MA BSc
Lesley has been involved with e-learning, blended learning and EdTech since the late 1990s initially as a developer and video producer. Over the last ten years, she has worked as an independent consultant, strategist and researcher specialising in adult learning, blended learning and EdTech. She is an associate with the Learning & Work Institute, National Foundation for Educational Research, and International Centre for Guidance Studies. Recent projects include an Erasmus + pan-European vocational learning programme, research on the impact of Covid-19 on apprentices for the Gatsby Foundation and development of a practical methodology for blended learning design.

Lesley Crane on LinkedIn.

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