Culture and Language Diversity in Online Learning Environment

From TalentLMS by John Laskaris


If there is one dimension that needs careful planning when designing an online learning program or a course, this is the culture and language diversity. This holds especially true for courses that are expected to be accessed by international learners. Global migration has become an increasingly common phenomenon.

This implies that many countries have a substantial population of immigrants or expatriates who have unique traditions, ethnicity, religions and cultures. While they all may speak the commonly spoken English language, they may decipher certain phrases and concepts differently.

While immigrants living in the English speaking countries may not have these content perception issues, those living in non-English speaking countries may not adopt the content as desired. This loss of knowledge defeats the purpose of online education!

When planning online courses, it is essential to determine the learners’ cultural and language background. This enables the course developers to use neutral and simple language to deliver the content. Many elements of the course need to be overseen in order to prevent misleading information. For starters, local jargon and humor has to be avoided in both text and images to prevent confusion in international students.

In this article, we uncover some mandatory tips to bear in mind when designing content for the international learner body. The aim is to disseminate knowledge in its original form, and to have it perceived by these learners as intended. Before we get into the “how to’s” of tweaking content to cater to a global academia, know that your efforts will go a long way:

  • By creating culture-sensitive content you will be able to reach out to a wider audience. The more your course gets exposure, the bigger the return on your investment!
  • As an organization, you might be able to position your brand as a global eLearning organization. This will help build credibility for your in-house research, respect in your field and a positive brand image.
  • You can offer consistent and reliable results to your clients by translating the content in their local dialect. Processes and protocol in a US-based organization will be no different than those in its India-based subsidiary.
  • Improve effectiveness and motivation in your courses. Native language is the language of comfort and ease. By providing options, you are encouraging non-native English speakers to learn a concept in their own language and boost their productivity.

Now let us examine how you can create eLearning courses that keep the diverse needs of the learners as the center-point of design and delivery. In this section, I will describe my past experience in developing eLearning programs for Arab learners.

A very important start is to study the cultural and religious backgrounds of the learners well. I went through some local comic books that were available in translations to discover a few local dialects and expressions. Arab-Muslim culture norms, for example the conservative dress code, the segregation of sexes in the campus, the favorite hobbies and preferred activities – all were accounted for.

This knowledge helped me understand and respect the Arab culture. I knew that the current interactive eLearning modules would not work for my students. For start, in order to “localize” the content for the learners, I needed to replace the American avatars with Arabic ones. I also needed to provide Arabic translation or captions where applicable to deepen the understanding of difficult concepts.

For such changes and many others, I worked with the Arabic language instructors to create the correct translations. This was necessary because my students could not grasp advanced English vocabulary. I noticed their constant need to turn to programs like Google Translate to convert my content in Arabic while they studied in groups or individually.

This well-intended habit soon lost its effectiveness due to the inaccurate translations provided by the Google Program. The college Arabic speaking instructors were instrumental in creating culture and language sensitive lessons for my learners. As a result, motivation and interest levels were higher and so were learning achievements.

Another area in my content that needed re-adjustment were the images and graphics. I needed to select real-world context backgrounds, local businesses and landscape to create relevant and realistic content. In other words, I wanted my learners to be able to relate to my videos, introductory vignettes and even names used in my lessons and classroom activities.

Currency and the legal system referenced in my lessons were converted into local context. This enables the students to be able to apply their learning instantly to their performance context. Any idioms and humor that could not be understood broadly was omitted. Since the UAE follows the British English writing style, I had to change the spellings of words like “program” to “programme” and “color” to “colour”.

Lastly, the US date writing convention “06/15/2015” was misleading to my students. I had to place the day in the month’s place to avoid confusions: “15/06/2015”.

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