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Multilingual workshops work well with careful planning

by Pamela Hamilton

I am always impressed by people who speak more than one language. Conducting business conversations and generating insights and ideas are hard enough without having to translate it all as you speak.

However, we monolinguals take for granted that our lack of fluency will be compensated for by others.  As much of global business is conducted in English, we assume that workshops will work well if everyone is speaking the same language, because that way we all understand each other in the moment.  However, for a high quality of output, allowing people to speak in a natural and spontaneous way is far more important.

When workshops need to generate new ideas, solutions or alignment, participants must be able to contribute their insights and ideas spontaneously and openly.  Even in one language, hierarchies can be tricky, and ideas need time and stimulus to emerge.  For participants with a language barrier, their contribution is limited, and therefore the workshop outputs might be compromised, almost always working negatively against the non-English speakers.

It is definitely worth preparing well in advance for a multi-lingual workshop, both for the quality of the outputs and for the respect shown to the non-English speakers (which in turn leads to greater buy in).  Here’s what to consider:

Translation prep, especially:

  • Translation of all slides, instructions and templates in advance
  • Stakeholder and participants to do prep work, sending objectives, insights and concerns in advance (in local language then translated, themed and redistributed/presented in both English and the local language), to make participants feel their views are represented in the design and facilitation on the day.

Natural language groupings first:

  • Break out groups organised by language (fluent English speaking vs non-English speaking) to allow break out exercises to be spontaneous and comfortable, with feedback simultaneously translated.

Live translation:

  • Multilingual templates as output (structured space for ideas in the local language and English), so that ideas generated are translated immediately in writing into English, and visa versa, meaning they can be read and voted on immediately by all.
  • Simultaneous translation of all discussions on the day, particularly from local language into English, to ensure understanding and alignment.

Expert translation:

  • Rather than using commercial translators, try to have expert practitioners (facilitators, researchers, concept writers) who are fluent in the local language to ensure the intention and meaning are clear, rather than just the words themselves.