Let’s say you’re asked to create a new workplace ethics course for all employees at your company. You’re a few days into the project when you realize that the company has expanded quite a bit since the first workplace ethics course was created, and the term “all employees” now includes the workers at the factory the company assumed control of in Romania and the new satellite office in Istanbul.
You ask about the possibility of translating the course into local languages and learn that there’s no money. “It’s OK,” you’re told. “They know English.”
They probably do; more than 1.75 billion people on the planet speak English at some level of proficiency. But you start looking over your course and see the phrase “operational transparency” on the third screen. A bit later, you see “stakeholder” and then “compliance processes.”
You begin to worry. Do the employees in Romania have enough English to make it through the knowledge check?
Many L&D professionals are in this position: asked to create courses in English for multiple audiences worldwide, with no funds available for translation or localization.
Here’s another version of the same dilemma: Your learners work in your country, a native English-speaking country, but speak English as a second language. It’s easy to imagine a U.S. company, for example, with English as a second language (ESL) employees not in Romania but in Reno, Nev., or Raleigh, N.C.
The situation is not hopeless; it’s merely a bigger, more interesting challenge than creating training only for native English speakers. Here are four actions you can take to increase engagement among employees who speak English as a second language.
1. Align Your Content With Global English Standards
The first step is make your course content as understandable as possible across cultures. Given that it’s in English, this action means revising the text, both on the screen and in your script, so that it uses what some people call international English but which in business is more commonly known as global English.
Global English is English whose vocabulary and structure is aimed at achieving the greatest comprehension, across cultures, among people for whom English is not their first language. It’s not merely simplified English; in fact, well-written global English sounds natural to native and non-native speakers alike.
Nor is it simply a matter of eliminating regional idioms like, “Hit a home run.” Global English standards apply at both the grammar and vocabulary levels and take into account a wide variety of language elements to increase comprehension and minimize unnecessary labor.
For example, in addition to idioms, global English revisions edit for split clauses, indefinite pronouns, misplaced modifiers, acronyms and abbreviations, and in-crowd varieties of English like internet lingo and “businessspeak.” It also includes syntactic cues that native speakers drop and sticks to primary rather than secondary definitions of words.
A global English revision is a worthwhile first step to take even if your training will be translated into another language, either by machine or a human, since a translation from global English can offer greater clarity than a translation from a common English vernacular.
2. Monitor Word Difficulty
Once you have an idea of the English skills of your learners, you can use the English Vocabulary Profile (EVP) to see how they will handle specific words you use in your training. The EVP is a database built by Cambridge University and other organizations that grades English words according to their placement on the scale used in the Common European Framework of Languages (CEFR), a framework designed to standardize language proficiency assessments across the European Union.
In other words, the EVP is a way to talk about skill level. It uses a six-level assessment: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. A1 is a beginning learner, and C2 is someone with full mastery of the English language. In effect, the English Vocabulary Profile shows you what you can expect each level of learner to know, based on each word’s frequency or difficulty. For example, “bread” is an A1 word, and “expenditure” is a C2 word.
In a training program where learners are, on average, high school graduates with limited English education, you might decide to restrict the vocabulary in your course to words up to level B1. Then, you would need to change any B2, C1 or C2 words you find in the course. On the other hand, if your learners have advanced degrees from English language institutions, you might decide to allow any word up to level C1.
It can be eye-opening to find out how challenging or rare some words are for a person who speaks English as a second language. For example, the verb “contract” (as in, “to contract COVID-19”) is a C2 word, expected to be understood only by people with full English mastery. So are “observer,” “applaud,” “impatience” and carrot (when used to mean a reward, not the food).
3. Expand Your Glossary
So, you’ve applied global English standards to clarify your text, and you’ve replaced the words that you believe are too difficult for your learners. Next is your content, which your learners have to understand every word of. It’s time to turn to your course glossary.
For web-based training, a course glossary might consist of highlighting words and linking them to pop-up definitions or offering an alphabetical list in hard copy or through a link.
If you’ve worked on a glossary in the past, you probably limited the words in it to technical terms only — words specific to the industry, such as medicine or accounting, or the environment, such as factories or hospitals. But why not include any words that might help the learners? Your ESL learners can engage with your training more fully, complete it more easily and perform better on the knowledge check if you help them along by including non-technical words as well.
Take a word like “withdrawn.” It’s not a technical term, but it’s a C1-level. What’s wrong with including a pop-up that says, “past participle of “withdraw” — to take out or remove”?
Of course, you don’t want to overwhelm your learners with too many glossary terms, so you might decide to include only as many non-technical words as you do technical terms. Or, you might check your vocabulary against the English Vocabulary Profile and set a level that triggers a glossary entry. For example, if your learners are high school graduates with limited English proficiency, you might include a glossary entry for every word classed at B2 or above.
Draw the definitions that you use in your glossary from a source written for English learners, not native speakers. Look for an adult learner’s dictionary with at least 30,000 entries as a guide.
Take a Course in Their Shoes
If you have an undergraduate degree, you likely had to take a foreign language at some point. You memorized words one by one, put sentences together piece by piece, and asked your conversation partner to repeat himself or herself time after time. This experience is common; even when it’s easy, learning a new language is a struggle.
The ESL learners who take your course will be in an even more difficult situation, because they have to deal with both the language and the training material itself. The more you can free up their attention to focus on the material and not the language, the greater the likelihood that your course will be successful for all employees.