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Speaking in tongues
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by Clive Shepherd
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The Internet may be helping us to become one great big, global family, but we’re a family that still has trouble communicating (don’t they all?). As members of this family we want to be able to communicate in our own language and in terms that we can relate to. While it may be efficient for us to share the same, vanilla e-learning content, the fact is that it simply doesn’t work. If e-learning is to reach its full potential, it cannot remain the exclusive property of the English-speaking world. In this article, Clive Shepherd examines the increasing importance of localisation for e-learning and looks at what’s involved if this is to succeed in bringing new audiences for our content.

Contents
The fall of the Tower of Babel
Taking localisation to the limit
Cultural concerns
How to get localised
When computers aren't enough
Case study: Roche
Resources

The fall of the Tower of Babel

According to the Old Testament and, for the sake of a good story, let’s assume that that means it’s true, there was a time when the people of the world spoke with a single tongue. Sharing a common vision, they started to build a tower – the tower of Babel – which would help them all to come closer to heaven. The project was a fantastic success, so much so that God became uncomfortable at the prospect of so much unwanted company. He took action, striking down the people and causing them to speak in a myriad of different tongues. Work on the project became impossible because no-one could understand what the other was talking about – it was like a meeting between HR and the IT department. At that moment, the localisation industry was born.

As the engineers of Babel locked themselves away in what was left of their tower, intent on finding a magic solution to the problem of multiple tongues, the problem that they faced grew harder by the day, as the peoples of the world developed differently in every imaginable way. The least of the problems facing them was language; problems that are still challenging e-learning publishers today.

As Fuel’s Steve Dineen points out: “There is much more to localising content than changing the language. Examples and metaphors need to be changed to truly localise a course. It is important to input local market knowledge, which can only be achieved by the local subject matter expert giving direct input into the course.”

Pete Fullard of Fullard Learning agrees: “The localisation of content needs to be far more than simply a translation of words. All sorts of cultural subtleties need to be taken into account. Within telephone training, for example, some countries have a far more natural or relaxed tone on the telephone, whilst others use the telephone in a more formal manner. These differences are carried through into humour, gestures, exclamations and so on, which are all crucial when considering the visual aspects of e-learning.”

When the going gets tough, the tough speak louder, like all good English tourists faced with the prospect of communication across the Channel. No doubt many e-learning executives have simply spoken a little louder when confronted with the localisation bill: “Enough of this nonsense, let them have English. If I can understand it, then so should they.”

Unfortunately, customers can switch away from your content at the click of a mouse and are about as loyal as Casanova. Algy Williams heads up the aptly-named Babel Media, a localisation specialist: “It would be true to say that, up to the last 3-5 years, non-English audiences have not been particularly demanding, but now consumers are insisting on ‘transparent localisation’, where there is no hint that the content originated anywhere else but locally. If not, they simply will not buy.” The evidence from the web is indicative. A study by Aberdeen Group, a management consultancy, found that, on average, users spend up to twice as long at a site, and are four times more likely to buy something from it, if it is presented to them in their own language.

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Taking localisation to the limit
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So you want to see your content reach a broader audience and you’re interested in the concept of localisation, but how far does the process have to go? Well a lot further than just the text, as any localisation expert will tell you. Sarah Poynton is responsible for Epicentre, the localisation and testing company that forms part of Epic Group plc: “Text will form a major part of the content, but is often just the start. Graphics often have to be replaced, not because of any textual content, but so they are more credible in the country concerned. Even such basics as the ethnic or gender balance of graphical characters may have to be altered to reflect local realities.”

Audio and video may also have to be taken into account. Oonagh McCutcheon is Chief Operating Officer of Transware plc, specialists in the localisation of e-learning products: “Because audio forms such a large part of our work, we have five studios, two of which are video-enabled. We maintain a database of talent, covering not only all major languages, but also regional variations. We have to be sure that we exactly match the message to be conveyed with the needs of the local audience.”

Finally, it’s important to recognise that for a completely ‘transparent localisation’ effect, the site hosting the content needs to be addressed just as thoroughly. As an example, NETg has recently introduced a new version of its online learning service, XtremeLearning, fully-localised in six languages. This new development enables companies to not only provide localised content to employees, a feature NETg has always offered, but access to the content through a localised user interface – in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Italian and US English. NETg is also establishing local partners in each market to provide mentoring services that reflect local linguistic and cultural differences.

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Cultural concerns
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Speaking at a recent eLearning Network meeting, Rob Edmonds, a senior industry analyst with SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, explored the impact of corporate and national cultures on the success of e-learning. He differentiated between 'personality', which is specific to an individual; 'culture', which is specific to a group or category of people, and 'human nature', which is universal.

Culture is multi-dimensional, as Edmonds explained: "Any learning project involves a number of groups. These groups will demonstrate a corporate culture, a national culture and a host of sub-cultures. You may work with more than one national culture - notably, if you are introducing e-learning materials throughout a multi-national firm. You may work with more than one corporate culture - such as where company mergers and acquisitions are involved. In each case, you need to think about the implications of the learning for all these cultures."

National culture may impact on the form that the e-learning needs to take: "Increasingly, e-learning is being used to deliver programmes across national boundaries," said Edmonds. "While the same e-learning programme may be made available to people from different countries and cultures, each e-learning programme may need to be altered if it is to have the maximum positive effect in each national culture."

"In Japan and countries with similar cultures, blended learning and virtual classrooms are proving effective and popular means of e-learning," he said. "France, Italy and Spain prefer a prescribed curriculum aided by mentoring; while the UK, Germany and the USA find learner-centred, personalised learning the order of the day."

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How to get localised
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As Poynton explains, there are three phases in the localisation process: translation, re-integration and language testing. “Following an evaluation of the product with the client, the first major task is translation, of all the assets, right down to the error messages. If the content isn’t already separated out, we may have to go through the original product and strip it out to form a script that the translators can work with. When translation’s complete, we have the task of re-integrating the content with the software engine to create a completely new, localised product. We may do this ourselves or it may be carried out by our client.”

Is that the end of the story? Not for Epicentre, who have the largest testing centre in Europe: “We use only qualified testers, trained by ourselves or ISEB accredited. Obviously for testing localised products we need the same degree of language skills that we needed for translation. Of course, the golden rule here is never to use the same people for translation and testing.” Epicentre needed all their skills to satisfy a recent client, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. 'Planet Britain' is a multimedia CD-ROM used to illustrate contemporary life in Britain - Politics, Economy, Industry, Fashion, Music and the Arts - to people all over the world. EpiCentre carried out full localisation of the CD into German and Japanese. According to Birgit Ihlau, from the British Embassy in Berlin: “We were most impressed by the speedy delivery and high quality of the German translation of Planet Britain. We use the CD-ROM regularly and successfully in Germany as a very helpful source of information.”

Is localisation something you can carry out in-house or is it a job for the specialists? Williams is quite definite: “You simply must use specialist localisation companies, people who understand your target audience completely. It helps a great deal if translators are based in the country concerned, because it only takes a few years to lose touch with the way the language and the culture are evolving. We do a lot of work for the youth market, in terms of both games and education software, so it’s absolutely vital that the language that’s used is up-to-date if the product is to have any credibility.” McCuthcheon concurs: “Localisation is extremely hard to do in-house. We only use translators who have a degree-level qualification in translation and who are still living in their home country.”

Whoever carries out the localisation, there’s no doubt that the process can be considerably eased if the product is designed with localisation in mind. McCuthcheon: “It’s vital that all the material that requires localisation is held in separate files from the software code. Ideally the basic software engine will be completely independent of content. This engine should be designed with the understanding that localised content will not always be the same size and shape as the original. For example, accommodation must be made for the fact that German text is about 25% longer than English. It must also be ‘double-byte’ enabled, to support Chinese, Japanese and similar character sets.”

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When computers aren't enough
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However efficient the localisation process, the costs will never be negligible, because people are involved throughout – and highly-qualified people at that. The IT professionals amongst us will be looking for an automated solution – machine translation perhaps? Unfortunately, since its earliest days, machine translation (the use of computers to translate documents from one language to another automatically) has suffered from exaggerated claims and impossible expectations. One characteristic story tells of an American military system designed to translate Russian into English, which is said to have rendered the famous Russian saying ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ into ‘The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.’ My advice, look to buy shares in localisation companies now – their future looks assured and the demand’s going to be high.

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Case study: Roche
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Roche is one of the world’s leading research-oriented healthcare groups, with approximately 64,000 employees, marketing its products in over 170 countries. In March 1999, Roche began working with CMG, the ICT services company, on a genetics education programme to help all those involved in the drug development cycle within the company to understand the facts about genetics, and to see how the genetic make-up of individuals could impact effectiveness of differing pharmaceutical treatments.

Steve Uttley is project director for CMG’s Training division: "Although a large proportion of the target audience are able to speak English, there are many benefits in supplying the programme in local language. Chief among these is improving the comprehension of users when learning about a complex subject. When we developed the original CD-ROM, we took into account the fact that it would be translated into other languages at a later date. So, for example, we positioned the English text on screen to accommodate languages with longer words, such as German.”

"We worked closely with Roche employees on the translation project. Where possible, Roche employees were used to translate the script of the CD-ROM into the local language. The script was then sent back to the UK where Mandarin, French, German and Spanish speakers worked to make sure that phrases conveyed the correct meaning and were not inappropriate or even offensive to the local culture in any way. Words accompanying graphics and animations also had to be translated and voice-overs re-recorded. Synchronisation then had to be adjusted to make sure that commentary corresponded to the pictures on the screen.”

"Working together with people with local language skills was key to the project. When we were testing the Mandarin CD-ROM, we had to run a Chinese version of Microsoft Windows. Of course, the instructions on screen were in the Mandarin character set. Without local advisors it would have been extremely difficult for us to complete this."
Roche and CMG developed the translated versions of the Genetics Education Programme CD-ROM for internal use and to distribute free-of-charge to colleges, universities and museums around the world. The programme has been very well received by users around the world and it is this success which has led to many new requests for local language variants.
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Resources
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Localisation specialists
Epicentre: www.epi-centre.co.uk
Babel Media Ltd: www.babelmedia.com
Digital Content Factory: www.digitalcontentfactory.com
Transware plc: www.transwareplc.com


Producers with localisation capabilities
CMG: www.cmg.com
Fullard Learning: www.fullard.co.uk
Fuel: www.fuelgb.com
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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