I want to share my experience about the fun and frustration of working on a multilingual, multicultural, and multitalented team. It’s mostly fun, of course. But working across linguistic and cultural barriers presents a number of challenges. To help you understand where I am coming from, here is a little bit on the environments and experiences that shaped me: My mother tongue is German, and I grew up in Germany. I studied abroad in the US, met a Texan, got married, and after a few other stops, currently live in the suburbs of Houston – a hyper-diverse place in its own way. Also, I work remotely for SwissVBS.
Most of the clients I write trainings for are German-speaking, but the working language in our team is English. While “language” is maybe one of the most striking differentiators, there is much more to consider: we all have different backgrounds, beliefs, cultural experiences, interests, and talents. We come from all over the world and in a microscopic way we are a perfect example of an almost utopian work environment. At least, I like to think of us this way…
So, what role does language and culture play when a project comes to life? And, how do we navigate our talents to create the results our clients – and learners – will love?
The expectations for an instructional designer are often narrowed down to designing learning experiences, using pedagogical tools to engage the learner, and meeting clients’ expectations. Of course, it is important to deliver the main message, come up with sound interactivities, and maybe use humour effectively, but fortunately it’s not that simple.
One of the very first steps in my writing process actually is to consider the linguistic, cultural, and political environments as well as previous knowledge and background of the audience I am writing for. Next, I need to make sure I understand the source material; I dissect it and try to tie it into a storyline that should not only meet the client’s expectations but also the educational objectives and training standards. Then (and this is where the magic happens), I have to deliver my concept and story to the Media Team.
Recently, I wrote a script in which I had one of the characters use his fingers to count while listing items. I was reminded of a scene from the movie Inglorious Basterds: Character Hellstrom may have already suspected that Hicox is a spy, but a certain three-finger-gesture eventually gives Hicox away.
In a workplace like ours, to make it work, we cannot rely on assumptions about the knowledge and experience of our colleagues (and clients for that matter!). Just because I know that Germans start counting with their thumb as opposed to the English, who start with their pointer, and just because I was reminded of this scene, does not mean that the Media Lead will think of this cultural difference when ordering assets.
Of course, in the training the gesture represents an innocent nuance, and yet, little details like the way we count, the way we talk, the way we are tell us more about the community we are a part of. Those elements establish a connection between the learner and the material. It creates a sense of belonging. Especially in eLearning, where the teacher and peers are oftentimes completely removed from the learning experience, we need to make sure that the factors that create the virtual experience are still as relatable as possible. If that is not the case, learners might feel misunderstood, frustrated, or not included. This could result in lower interest and, consequently, a lack of motivation to complete the training, do well, or retain the information.
On a team like ours, there is a constant need for communication. To make all of our talents work harmoniously, and to optimize the outcome on the side of production, we need to consider and respect each other’s backgrounds, be patient, and more often than not simply repeat something in a different way. Distance and barriers, whether it be physical distance, cultural or linguistic barriers, present daily challenges. But, at the end of the day, I believe it just provides us with abundant opportunity to create something special for our clients.
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