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David McKee

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The challenges of training people in other languages


Sprechen sie talk? David McKee underlines the importance of a little cultural sensitivity when it comes to training in other languages.

The nature of the global workforce is changing, as businesses increasingly expand overseas, forge international patrnerships and import labour from all over the world. Transferable skills are always in demand and it's not uncommon for trainers to be called upon to deliver training to a multilingual audience domestically, train foreign workers based at an overseas branch of their own company, or provide guest training for partners and other foreign companies. Training people in languages other than their own can throw up a number of different challenges but they can be overcome with a little foresight and understanding.

Overcoming the language barrier

English is frequently used as a common language within the business world. This certainly does not mean that you can rely on people speaking English – or understanding it sufficiently well – everywhere you go. Standards of English may vary widely depending on the group you are training. For example, workers on the shop floor might have less of a grasp of the language than senior management. Similarly, a Chinese audience is less likely to speak English fluently than a similar group of Swedes. Be wary of making sweeping assumptions however and remember that, even within a group from a similar cultural background and demographic, the levels of understanding will vary between individuals.

There are a few basic tips that should help you to get your message across:

  • Speak clearly and enunciate, trying not to let words run together. Speak slowly but not unnaturally so. Repeat important points.
  • Use short, simple words and sentences. Try to avoid jargon and technical terms. This may not always be possible of course, especially if the training is technical in nature.
  • Stick to one subject at a time and break down complex instructions into simpler steps.
  • Avoid slang and idioms, as these are often not taught when a student is learning English as a second language. You might know what 'once in a blue moon' means but a literal translation would be little more than gibberish. Idiomatic phrases require a measure of cultural knowledge as well as linguistic skill.
  • Use the active rather than passive voice for instructions. E.g. say: 'Send the report for processing' rather than 'The report needs to be sent for processing.'
  • Tailor your delivery to suit the trainees with the least understanding of the language rather than those with the most. Constantly having to backtrack and explain various terms can lead to a loss of valuable training time.

Visual aids and practical demonstrations can also be invaluable ways to impart information in situations where there is a language barrier. If delivering a PowerPoint or similar presentation, keep the slides as image-based as possible. Labels and written key points are fine, but word clouds can be even more bewildering than verbal communication.

Cultural differences

As well as the language barrier, cultural differences should be taken into account. This doesn't just apply to using cultural references, although these can be problematic. If in doubt, leave out cultural references that might not 'cross over' and make sure that any you do use will not cause offence to your audience.

Different cultures tend to communicate in different ways and a training methodology that works brilliantly for one audience might not be as well received by another. There are a number of sociological terms that can be useful in working out the best strategy.

In 'low power-distance' cultures, such as Northern Europe, Australia and Israel, participants tend to see their trainers as peers. They feel free to speak up and ask questions and expect dialogue. Higher power-distance cultures such as much of Asia and the Middle East are more likely to see the trainer as an authority figure and will expect you to pass on your expertise.

Learning goals may also be different. In individualist cultures like the USA, people may attend training for the purposes of self-development and advancement. They may revel in challenging precepts you put in front of them, whereas a collectivist culture such as China may be more resistant to disagreeing with the trainer or other participants, and may also be embarrassed to be asked a question or otherwise 'singled out'.

George Bernard Shaw said: "The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Do not assume that, because no one raises their hand or says that they have failed to understand a point or even become hopelessly lost, that everything has passed seamlessly from you to your trainees. Remember that as the trainer it is your responsibility to adapt your delivery to the nationality and culture of the trainees and to make sure, as best you can, that you have been understand.

Build in as much time as possible for one-on-ones and 'post-session' discourse and, above all, approach the training with patience and understanding.

David McKee is the HR Director of Lingo24, Inc., a provider of translation services in the UK and all over the globe. Launched in 2001, Lingo24, Inc. now has more than 200 employees spanning four continents and clients in more than 60 countries. Follow Lingo24, Inc. on Twitter: @Lingo24


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