The Beginnings of Multi-language eLearning

Ten years ago, I visited a large packing company in Richmond, Virginia to meet Alice, the vice president of learning. My appointment was at 8:00 a.m. for 15 minutes. I started early from Reston and drove through a chilly morning, hoping that I would receive a breakthrough assignment in this company.

Alice walked in briskly and asked me to quickly tell her what my company could do. I did and then waited expectantly. She waved her hand dismissively and said she’d keep us in mind. I sighed and started to get up when she suddenly asked me, “Can you translate eLearning courses into other languages?” I gaped at her and said apologetically that we didn’t. She said, “Mr. Prasad, you’d better get this capability into your company. There will be an increasing demand for this service in the coming years.”

That conversation was 10 years ago, when even eLearning was just picking up. There were no easy-to-use authoring tools. Instructional design was still trying to impress people with a lot of bells and whistles. The thought of translating those online courses instructionally and technically into multiple languages to suit multiple nationalities was daunting, to say the least. However, that was when we started our journey into the exciting world of designing eLearning courses for global, multicultural audiences.

Today, companies worldwide are translating eLearning courses from English into many other languages, from simplified Chinese, mainland Spanish, German and French to Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese, which are among the most difficult to translate because of the peculiarities of script and display.

How prophetic Alice’s words were! Multi-language eLearning is here to stay — and how!

Culture and Learning

With so many companies operating in different countries, workforces are becoming more multicultural, with employees coming from different and distinct backgrounds, speaking different languages, demonstrating different ways of working, having different business priorities and preferring different methods of learning. How are organizations operating in multiple cultures and countries addressing adapting eLearning courses to meet the needs of their multicultural audiences?

Before we go any further, let’s explore culture and its implications on eLearning. As Project GLOBE defines it, culture is the sum total of “shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives that are transmitted across generations.”

Research shows that culture affects the way people learn. Geert Hofstede’s groundbreaking work identifying cultural differences based on certain dimensions is useful in understanding how we can organize our world into cultural clusters. In a nutshell, Hofstede’s four dimensions that demarcate cultures, societies and countries are as follows:

  • The Power Distance Index (PDI) measures the degree to which the culture accepts inequalities among people. High-PDI countries include Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, France, Hong Kong and India, while low-PDI countries include New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Germany and the U.K.
  • The Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) measures the degree to which people feel threatened by uncertainty. High-UAI countries include Greece, Portugal, Belgium, Japan and Spain, while low-UAI countries include Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada.
  • The Individualism-collectivism Index (IDV) measures the degree to which people act individually rather than as a part of a group. High-IDV countries include the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Italy and Denmark, while low-IDV countries include China, Thailand, Singapore, Peru and Malaysia.
  • The Masculinity-femininity Index (MAS) measures the degree to which the culture values traditionally masculine traits, such as assertiveness, achievement and materialism rather than traditionally feminine traits, such as harmony. High-MAS countries include Japan, the U.S., Italy, the U.K., Germany and India, while low-MAS countries include Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Finland.

Culture and eLearning Design: Strategies of Adoption

Based on Hofstede’s work, Simon Mercado and others have made recommendations on how to adapt eLearning design for different cultures. Based on this work, the critical elements to adapt in online courses are:

Visuals and Graphics

  • For high-PDI cultures, design graphical user interfaces (GUIs) with ordered and symmetrical imagery and presentations, and use formal and appropriate imagery to display authority (e.g., logos and crests).
  • For low-MAS cultures, use artistry and aesthetics.
  • For high-IDV cultures, don’t restrict access, but provide operational freedom.
  • For high-UAI cultures, avoid information overload, and let learners know the implications of their actions.

Facilitative Information

  • For high-UAI cultures, provide precise information and instructions, detailed guidance on assignments, and strict timetables.
  • For low-UAI cultures, provide flexibility, unstructured learning and case studies.


  • For high-IDV cultures, stress individual assignments and individual contributions to group projects. Assign individual scores based on personal contributions.
  • For low-IDV cultures, assign scores based on equality principles, and avoid “losing face” situations.
  • For high-UAI cultures, avoid independent problem-solving exercises.
  • For high-MAS cultures, emphasize individual assignments.
  • For low-MAS cultures, emphasize group assignments.


  • For high-PDI cultures, provide definitive and assertive feedback, and be ready to provide the standards against which you’re providing that feedback.
  • For low-PDI cultures, provide feedback diplomatically, and be prepared for learners to contradict you and defend their work.

Tips for Instructional Designers

Ideally, instructional designers would create separate courses for each culture or at least for each language. However, that approach is not a viable proposition in terms of efficiency and cost. Instead, organizations typically take the “master course” and translate and localize the content.

Here are a few guidelines that will help your instructional designers adapt eLearning courses to be more culturally inclusive:

  • For text, use international English that’s devoid of slang and colloquialisms, jargon, and idioms. Language should be basic and include visuals.
  • For audio, accent is not a major issue as long as the voice is clear, and the speaker has credibility. The tone should be professional and somewhere between formal and friendly — a balance of professional and personal.
  • For images, use neutral, non-human figures when possible. If you include human figures, avoid close-ups of faces or focusing on a particular ethnicity or gender. Groups of people should be multiethnic and include both genders.
  • Avoid humor, as it is culture-specific and a potential minefield.
  • Take care while using symbols and designs, especially religious and political, unless the subject warrants it.
  • Though corporate style guides typically rule the choice of colors, be aware of the fact that some colors (e.g., white, black and green) have a specific connotation in certain cultures.

Final Thoughts

After being in this field for more than 20 years and traveling extensively, I’m still amazed at the rich cultural variance across the world. There is so much to learn. While it’s obvious that there is no such thing as a perfect eLearning course that is culturally acceptable across the globe, there’s no need for despair. The frameworks and tips in this article will help. In addition, reading widely from a variety of cultures and watching foreign films will help give instructional designers an inside view.

More than anything, training professionals should take every opportunity to talk with colleagues in other countries. Make small talk at the beginning of your calls, and add personal notes in your emails. These conversations will help your eLearning courses appeal to a global audience.