How to Avoid Training Getting Lost in Translation

Designing and running training courses across international locations has become a lot more prevalent in today’s globalized marketplace. Not only are training companies exporting their content and courses, but within companies themselves, HR departments are becoming increasingly responsible for the development of training solutions that must be rolled out internationally.

The centralisation of training content and delivery is, of course, rational. However, one area in which it falls short is in being able to deliver those solutions effectively to a local audience. Whereas local stakeholders once sourced training providers or developed content according to local needs and tastes, the training is now being decided thousands of miles away by people who do not know the local conditions.

There are two key areas many underestimate when it comes to rolling out training globally – language and culture.


The assumption that end users of the training will all know English to the same level of a native speaker causes untold headaches. The language used in writing courses in is almost always from the perspective of the author who are almost always native English speakers. The use of over complex sentences, niche terminology and high-brow language do nothing to aid understanding. Having seen valuable hours wasted in training courses due to debates over the meaning of terminology, I can attest to the damage the wrong kind of language can have.

Language carries all sorts of meanings, sometimes political. Especially within larger, fragmented organisations where a uniform approach to training is adopted, the language used within training courses can be totally misconstrued due to internal power dynamics as well as local religious, cultural and social reasons. The words, phrases and terms once used in a team building training course in Malaysia led to a segment of the audience feeling discriminated against; the course achieved the opposite of its desired impact simply down to the use of language.

Translation of training content or at least supplementary materials to aid understanding, is becoming a lot more common as learners engage more easily and can access meanings a lot quicker. However, the translation process is often rarely understood by HR stakeholders who put their trust in translators to do a good job. The translation process requires much more input in terms of clarifying meanings, giving context, setting the tone of the language and addressing formatting issues.


Perhaps more underestimated than language in terms of the impact it can have on a training’s efficacy is culture. Cultures impacts how we teach, how we learn, how we listen to, what we see and pretty much everything else you can think of. It is everywhere.

An American company ran a training course in Seoul, later bemoaning the fact that the participants did not want to engage and were pretty much silent the whole day. The training course, developed in the US, was about addressing one’s weaknesses in order to improve and better oneself. As publicly making yourself look bad isn’t really the done thing in Korean culture, the lack of engagement made perfect sense.

Cultural differences in the approach to learning can also account for many usability issues. In the West, the education system encourages deduction, logic and self-learning. Consequently, training courses and content for Westerners tends to use more exercises activities that test one’s creative thinking or ability to reason. Take these types of courses and put them in a culture where the education system is built on rote learning, hard facts and learning from those wiser than you, and you soon seen gaps. Training needs to, at least partly, be in tune with the way people culturally learn and take on board information.

The importance of a suitable trainer is even more important when thinking of delivering courses internationally. In less hierarchical cultures, the expectation is that everyone is equal(ish) and participants tend to learn from each other; they engage in brainstorming, feedback, opinions, debate and dialogue. By contrast, in more hierarchical cultures participants expect to be taught by an expert, i.e. the trainer delivers information which the learners copy. The idea of the learners teaching each other is alien.

The need to deliver training courses, content and solutions internationally is only going to increase over the coming years. What is important for HR stakeholders to always bear in mind is that what works at home, doesn’t always do so abroad. You need to pay attention to language and culture to avoid getting lost in translation.'

Author: neilpayne

Expert in Cross Cultural Training &, Diversity.
Director of Commisceo Global Training & Consultancy.
Speaker, Trainer and Business Consultant for Middle East, Iran, Turkey & Islam.

Share This Post On
468 ad