Language problem with corporate e-learning courses?

Written by Ioannes Oculus

One day one of my students asked me what the word ‘hone’ means. I was surprised, I’d never expected a question about such high-level vocabulary. He was a pre-intermediate level one and told me that it came from an e-learning course in his company that he had problems doing it as he could understand the contents.

The corporate environment is full of different training courses. Security awareness, IT courses, selling courses, soft skills, hard skills you name it! Usually, these are done in an e-learning format. They contain cartoons or photos to imitate actual situations and make the course more interesting. However, using the best visuals and the best method is not the only thing you should look for. One of the things that seems totally forgotten is language.

In a multinational company, if English is the language of the e-learning course you have to take your learner language skills into considerations. So ask yourself:

Who is my learner?

You’ve probably heard a lot about adapting your message to your target audience. That’s great! But don’t forget that it also means using a language they understand. Often many of the participants are at about (or below) intermediate level. As they only read the text and there is no possibility to ask for clarification, anytime you use an advanced word, you risk losing them, their attention and/or understanding.

Much better results can be achieved if a simpler, easier to understand language is used. For example, instead of saying ‘A highly complicated password should be used across all company’s platforms’ the passive voice could be omitted and a reason could be added. The message could follow like this: “Please use a difficult to break password everywhere in the company. Make sure you use not only letters, numbers and special characters.’ Doesn’t it sound a little easier and more personal?

What to do?

In my opinion, big companies should employ writers to make not only their e-learning courses but also newsletters etc. more engaging. Someone who would translate everything from boring corporish to a human language. There are, however, some tips that can be useful and easy to implement.

Avoid passive

‘You’ form sounds much more personal. Imagine you’re talking with a friend. Would you ask him something like that: ‘Could a cup of coffee be made by you for me?’

Hold your vocabulary horses

While writing for an international audience don’t try to be a new Shakespeare. Choose easy to understand vocabulary, preferably below C level. You can check this e.g. with Cambridge online dictionary. Many entries have a language level given. As you can see in the attached screenshot ‘sophisticated’ is a B2 level word. If there is no level given, avoid the word, it means it’s way too complicated.

Be clear

Sometimes you have to use some technical terms or phrases. In an IT course many words would not follow the above rule, so try to explain them. Sometimes an equivalent, word or phrase meaning the same, is a solution. Just like I used it to explain the word ‘equivalent’ (C1 level word).

Make it short

Keep your sentences short. It might happen, that you, the expert in the field you’re teaching, would be tempted to use long and very descriptive sentences in order to make sure that the goals which you want to achieve and which will make your company achieve better results which are necessary in the modern competing market would be actually achieved and therefore the expected results would also help the participants…. That was too long. It’s easy to get lost in the snake-like sentences. Chop them, cut them into smaller pieces and they’ll be easier to read, understand and put into practice in future.

Be inspired

Look for inspirations. The easiest way is to spend some time comparing existing resources. Look at people on Youtube. They have to be engaging to win their audience. This is the way they make money. If you use some of their techniques in your e-learning materials, that will make a difference!

Why should you do it?

Your learners are business people involved in many other tasks and duties. An obligatory training course comes as a distraction and is often seen as ‘this thing they tell us to do’. So they click through it as fast as possible to return ASAP to other things. No one is giving them extra time to do it. As a teacher, I know that my students learn much more if they have some time to relax before and after the lesson so that their brain has time to prepare for getting new information and then organizing it and remembering for a long time. Easier language is a way to make your content more engaging. It’s easier to achieve your goals if your listener or reader understands what you want to say.

If you think about it for a while, you’ll see how it works. Remember boring and too difficult to understand lectures at school or university? Don’t make the same mistake!

About the author

Ioannes Oculus

I am addicted to languages, both modern and ancient. No language is dead as long as we can read and understand it. I want to share my linguistic passion with like minded people. I am also interested in history, astronomy, genealogy, books and probably many others. My goals now are to write a novel in Latin, a textbook for Latin learners, Uzbek-Polish, Polish-Uzbek dictionary, modern Uzbek grammar and textbook for learners. My dream is to have a big house in UK or USA where I could keep all my books and have enough time and money to achieve my goals.

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