A sense of belonging: Why cross-cultural communication is about more than just translation

When faced with the challenge of authoring eLearning content for an international or culturally diverse audience, many organizations will spend the bulk of their time and energy on translation.

While there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s the only way to train a multilingual workforce, after all—it’s easy to overlook some of the less obvious changes you need to make in order to completely cater to workers of all nationalities. This process is called localization, and it’s never been more necessary to adopt.

The growing lack of belonging in the workplace

From the media you select to the etiquette you describe, failing to account for regional and cultural differences in your eLearning content runs the risk of contributing to an exclusionary working atmosphere. In fact, according to McKinsey, 51% of employees already lack a feeling of belonging.

Like McKinsey, Gallup has also noted that the American workforce doesn’t feel seen or respected. Its polling has found that seven out of ten workers feel that their opinions don’t count.

To resolve this problem, Gallup points to the need for cultural competence from leaders. In practical terms, this means ensuring that leaders can appreciate “the differences in people and cultures and the unique opportunities and challenges for both.”

Localizing your learning content is a fantastic way to demonstrate your commitment to an important aspect of cultural competence. Rather than delivering content exclusively designed for your headquarters, localization allows you to present international teams, departments, or sibling companies with learning content that’s as inclusive and relevant as it is useful—and allows you to reap the business rewards of a more aligned workforce.

Translation: A quick refresher

We’re all familiar with the concept of translation. It’s about taking text from one language and converting it into another while retaining the spirit and meaning of the original.

Sometimes, though, the meaning of a given phrase, idiom, or example shouldn’t be preserved, as cultural differences and changing frames of reference make them ineffective. These shifting meanings can have huge implications when you’re trying to teach important concepts.

In eLearning, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the text is only part of a multi-dimensional experience comprising images, video, and even color palettes that have completely different connotations once they travel beyond national boundaries.

That’s where localization comes in.

Discover how the right tool makes translation a walk in the park:

How to easily make multi-language courses with Gomo

The power of localization

So, what does localization look like in practice?

Let’s start with the text itself, and let’s imagine you’re writing a piece of compliance training centered around food hygiene. If your original text caters (if you’ll excuse the pun) to a British audience, you might illustrate a point by referring to the traditional Sunday roast dinner. This approach gives your British team something familiar to ground their understanding of the topic.

When you send that same learning content to your Argentinian team, however, it doesn’t matter how perfectly you translate the phrase “Sunday roast” into Spanish—because it’s not a tradition in that country. The result? A whole division of your company that doesn’t feel like they’re in on the reference or, potentially, a part of the team.

If you take the time to localize your content, however, you can substitute your British staple with an equivalent traditional meal, like the asado. This allows you to get the same point across while respecting Argentina’s preference for a barbecue at the weekend!

Unlike translation, localization doesn’t end with the text. Think about your photographs and similar visual media: these might depict ethnicities, landmarks, or even architectural details that feel familiar in one country and completely alien in another.

Finally, localization allows you to create relevant and personalized content for teams from different cultural backgrounds who both speak the same language. The differences between US and UK English are subtle, but allowing for both options will be noticed—and appreciated—by each team.

Take a more in-depth dive into specific localization practices:

How to create culturally aware eLearning for global audiences

Why localization matters

When learning content isn’t appropriately localized, learners are going to feel a little bit alienated. It’s difficult for learners to feel a part of an organization that, however unintentionally, treats their training and development experience as an afterthought with none of the considerate touches that bring learning to life for employees in other countries.

This isn’t just an issue that needs rectifying on a human level, either. The importance of belonging is an increasingly talked-about topic in the HR world, and plenty of organizations are now able to articulate its value in terms of dollars and cents.

For learning designers looking to capitalize on the business benefits of belonging, it’s worth reflecting on the three drivers for belonging identified by Deloitte: comfort, connection, and contribution.

These respectively involve fair treatment, a sense of community, and alignment with one’s organization—and it’s easy to see how a non-localized learning program could leave your people lacking in these essential areas. There’s no fairness, community, or alignment in learning content peppered with examples and media that have an inconsistent bearing on your learners’ lives.

However, taking the time to localize will increase your employees’ sense of belonging, which comes with a string of beneficial learning and business outcomes.

Learning and belonging

According to a wide-ranging literature review from University College London’s Institute of Education, there are positive links between a sense of belonging and educational outcomes. Commissioned by the UK-based National Education Union, the research defines “belonging” as a “sense of being somewhere you can be confident that you’ll fit in and be safe in your identity.”

As the study notes, a sense of belonging leads to learning outcomes that include increases in motivation, retention, and academic achievement.

Though the study refers to school-age learners, there’s every reason to believe that adult learners in a professional setting still need the same sense of belonging in order to learn at their best. That’s why it’s vital that their learning content promotes, rather than detracts from, that all-important feeling of belonging.

The business benefits of belonging

Belonging isn’t just a great way to improve learner outcomes. In fact, according to 2020 research from Deloitte, belonging and wellbeing were considered the most important trends in the world of human capital among the 9,000 business leaders surveyed.

There’s a reason belonging is considered important from a business perspective. Separate Deloitte research has found that a strong sense of belonging can increase job performance by 56% and lead to a 75% reduction in sick days.

EY research into Asia-Pacific organizations paints an even brighter picture for companies that cultivate a sense of belonging. Not only does belonging make employees three times more likely to stay with their company, but this kind of retention and engagement can represent cost savings as high as $100 billion among the organizations that embrace it.

Crucially, when asked to describe what a sense of belonging means to them, the respondents in this study weren’t limited to the answer “speak[ing] my language”. To them, belonging also meant feeling included, shared beliefs, and “look[ing] like me”.

All of these markers of belonging can be invoked through localized content which incorporates relevant media and culturally appropriate touchstones as part of the learning process.

Localization starts with creating variations on your courses. Here’s how to begin:

How to deliver multiple versions of a single eLearning course

Implementing localization in your learning tool

Clearly, localizing your content can result in better learning and business outcomes, alongside a workforce that feels happier, more included, and part of a cohesive whole.

At the same time, you don’t want to double, triple, or quadruple your L&D team’s workload by building a new course for every language and every regional variation of your eLearning content.

Luckily, with a good authoring tool on hand, you won’t have to. The right tool will help you produce courses that each contain a number of localized versions. This approach will keep your L&D team’s to-do list at manageable levels by greasing the update- and distribution-related wheels!

From your learners’ point of view, the result will be a simple drop-down language selector. Behind the scenes, however, the tool will let you set display conditions, causing your different visual media options to accompany the appropriate language.

Features like this will ensure that your stock photos featuring Paris at night are present and correct for French learners, but get replaced by sunny Arizona for your American team.

About the author: Simon Waldram

As Product Manager at Gomo, I’m passionate about delivering value at every interaction and to increase sustainable proven value for our customers and business.

I have extensive experience of working within both the commercial and educational sectors, and approach all projects with a strategic mind.

This combination of education and commercial experience has enabled me to stay at the leading edge of emerging technologies to ensure that customers are provided with a framework for success.

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