8 things to think about when developing multilingual learning experiences

I’m just back from a short holiday in Japan, which has sparked this post about things to think about when developing multilingual learning experiences.

My wife studied multiple European languages and has an understanding of language and grammar that I just cannot contemplate. When I’m travelling by myself, language is a barrier, but travelling with my wife means that grappling with the local language is a source of pleasure. She takes huge delight in exploring translations, good and bad. She seems to always have Google Translate at the ready, which often enables us to get a 'sense of the mean’ of the text, but Google gives us a literal translation that sometimes doesn’t take into account the meaning as it might apply to the context.  

I wouldn’t trust it for building a learning experience. A human translator doesn’t just literally translate the words, they look at context and meaning as well.

We found a great example of a bad translation in one of the apartments we stayed in, where ‘evacuation paths’ had been translated ‘evaluation paths’.

8 things to consider when designing digital learning

8 things main

1) Translating a learning experience cannot be an afterthought

Translating learning experiences needs to be factored into the early stages of a project. Most of what is outlined below are decisions that need to made during the development process. If they’re left until later, translating can be complex and expensive.

2) Be careful when using your own ‘local’ language

Some things to consider when you're writing:

  • Avoid acronyms.

  • Avoid slang.

  • Metaphors can be challenging because they are often culturally specific.

  • The same clear plain English approach that should be used for all digital learning will make translation easier.

3) Your interface needs to be flexible

When written, different languages take up different amounts of space. This can make slide-based approaches challenging for learning experiences that need to be translated. A simpler way to go is to use scrolling pages and responsive design. Scrolling pages provide you with a lot more flexibility.

4) Avoid text in images and video

Having text in images or video means you’ll need to produce a different version for each language. The same goes for designing icons.  

5) Shoot your video to allow space for the closed captions

Closed captions will take about the bottom third of the video. As you’re shooting and framing your video make sure that critical visual content is not shown in that area.

6) Avoid cultural-specific images

When choosing imagery avoid using images that show certain places or that could be identified as being from a particular country.

7) Have native-language subject matter experts check the final results

The more technical your learning experience the more important it is for a native-language subject to check the translations to make sure it all makes sense.

8) Different cultures approach learning in different ways

Developing multilingual learning experiences is not just about translating the words. You need to think about the cultural preferences for different approaches to learning.

Technologies to support translation

There are two common ways to translate digital content. One is using translation files such as XLIFF, and another is what I call ‘inplace editing’.

XLIFF files

With XLIFF files, editable sections of content are exported and then edited separately. To see them in the correct context they need to be reloaded. This approach is often used with the translation of labels and instructions in software. The problem is that the translation is not happening in the context of a learning experience and it introduces the problem of being the kind of literal translation that we talked about above.

Inplace editing

Inplace editing is how Storyline Glasshouse (Sprout Labs’ authoring system) works. It means the translation can be rapidly viewed in context.

Glasshouse is built on top of the content management system Silverstripe, which can provide a full functional system for translation. This means that when, say, a Spanish translator is working, they are able to see their translation in context of the whole resource instead of translating fragments like they would be with XLIFF files.