Getting elearning right for non-native English speakers is important for business. Many organisations are looking for cost effective learning solutions suitable for a workforce that is becoming more diverse, for instance, one in five people living in London has English as a second language. It is essential to design modules that will reach the whole workforce and have the desired effect.
Let’s imagine that a company asks for a module in English for their diverse global workforce with different linguistic backgrounds. Multinational organisations would normally solve this through translation, especially when the audience’s linguistic skill is on an intermediate level, yet often this is not a practical solution for smaller companies. What considerations do we need to think about to ensure we serve this type of audience?
From an elearning perspective, we want to create absorbing elearning that works for the whole target audience, and if that includes non-native English speakers we need to take their particular needs and challenges into account.
Why it matters
Have you ever wondered how English might sound to non-native speakers with an intermediate understanding of the language?
Take a look at this video and you will instantly be able to step into their shoes:
At first, the ‘fake English’ is baffling and a little funny, but it becomes increasingly frustrating because you can’t understand what the couple are arguing about. Surely we want to avoid creating the same effect in online training. As a non-native English speaker (I’m Italian) and a trainee instructional designer, I’m keen to explore the challenges facing both learners and designers in this post.
Overcoming the challenges
The main issue to reflect upon is that in order for elearning to be effective it must be absorbing, therefore the tips suggested here should be in addition to best practice. Furthermore, we don’t want to interrupt the elearning experience for native learners.
What we have to bear in mind when designing elearning for non-native English speakers is that this group of learners often has a double task; understanding the content and the language. Therefore, we have to address both challenges in elearning. Here are some tips.
- Borrowing activities from language teachers
Adopting some of the research and exercises developed in language teaching could help in the design of elearning for non-native speakers.
Listening activities would be a great resource for non-native English speakers, especially where they have to understand what people say; think about a fire safety module where learners can actually hear some verbal instructions such as ‘fire, fire.’ A multiple choice question activity based on crucial information in a video would be a relevant example.
Vocabulary-based activities would also be useful to assess if the target audience understands the glossary of terms. This could be an optional activity as the glossary doesn’t pose a particular linguistic challenge to native English speakers.
- Borrowing good practices from writers
Does your text have a readability score such as the Harvard Law Review, aimed at graduate level students? Then it would probably be a good idea to simplify it. You can easily test if your language is at the same reading level as most of William Shakespeare’s works or rather Harry Potter through The Writer’s readability checker, or just with a Flesch Reading Ease scale in Word.
In terms of writing, using an automated readability checker or borrowing some of the principles of the Plain English Campaign are useful, such as keeping sentences short or using active verbs instead of passive ones.
With the objective of motivation in mind, it’s important to use language that is clear and simple, but not too basic. As elearning expert Cathy Moore puts it, “Make your content challenging, not your language”.
- Borrowing design principles from translators
Good elearning already adopts some localisation principles in choosing the right design for specific audiences. Considering cultural sensitivities in the choice of colours or images is also important for adapting elearning for a non-native English speaking audience. For instance, at Sponge we were required to change an image of a pig for one of a turkey to respect the client’s Muslim audience. The use of colours is crucial because it has a specific meaning in different cultures: for instance, in Korean culture red is considered unlucky, as pointed out by the blogger Pierre Allard.
- Adopting tools from intercultural studies
A useful tool to adapt elearning in terms of cross-cultural communication is the Hofstede Cultural Index, a framework describing values and behaviours according to each country. It might help us understand how to tailor our tone of voice and activities. Think about the value of power distance: in some countries, a straight conversation between a worker and their manager would be a normal practice in clearing up misunderstandings and finding a solution, while in others, where respecting hierarchies is a crucial value, a scenario based on such a direct approach would be considered disrespectful.
- Adapting the voiceover
Good practice in the use of voiceover suggests that a narrator should act as a trusted advisor rather than a lecturer, as suggested by Sarah Kesher.
Every non-native learner takes more time in absorbing information in a different language, be it on screen or as audio. Therefore it’s vital to use voiceover as a tool to reinforce the learning by adopting simple language or using it only for some important highlighted sentences. In line with good practice in elearning, as explained by the elearning coach Connie Malamed, less is more.
These reflections can be useful in planning elearning for a diverse audience yet they also suggest the need for more exploration. In researching this post, I asked my work colleagues and some elearning experts for their views and I am thankful to those who responded - particularly to Julie Dirksen for a useful link on interface design guidelines for different cultures. I really hope that raising this topic will engage more learning professionals to gather information which will eventually contribute to developing new elearning practices.
Author: Elisabetta Tesser, Trainee Instructional Designer at Sponge.