by Pierre Allard, e2f

With the worldwide e-learning industry growing to a projected 107b by 20151, at a compound annual growth rate of 7.6% for the U.S. market and at a robust more than 20% for Asia-Pacific, planning and implementing a sound localization method is an essential part to the overall success of your e-learning strategy. Here are some key elements to help you develop your localization strategy.

What is e-Learning?

e-learning stands for electronic learning. Although there is no consensus about the definition of e-learning, a practical definition is “the delivery of learning via any form of electronic media”.2

The benefit of e-learning is that it can include a wide range of digital technologies and, with the recent boom in mobile access and devices, can be accessed from practically anywhere, at any time.

e-learning is now widely used for corporate training. It favors the rapid dissemination of updatable information in an asynchronously manner and is used “to improve organizational performance by building job-relevant knowledge and skills in workers.”3

A study by Training Magazine estimates that organizations that uses e-learning instead of conventional training methods are saving between 50% and 70% on the cost of training.

It is also rapidly becoming a tool of choice for learning institutions around the world. But when it comes to localizing e-learning projects, a good proportion of companies are facing challenges that they did not foresee when launching the project and are consequently overwhelmed by the task at hand.

The consequences can be serious and range from hard-to-predict budget over cost, delivery delays and wide fluctuation in the quality.

A few, but important, well-managed steps can dramatically reduce the problems of e-learning localization.

Planning for Localization from Project Inception

One of the key aspects of localizing an e-learning project is to integrate localization early in the development of your project. This will reduce costs related to potential reworking as well as help you manage your timeline more efficiently. Nowadays, e-learning projects can be linguistically complex as well as rich in multimedia content and, in essence, technically challenging. Planning your resources accordingly will assure that each step is under control, including localization.

Keep it Simple

What it really means is that you need to internationalize your design before localizing it.

Internationalization is the process of standardizing elements such as dates, currency and measurements formats, designing for possible expanding or contracting text issues in target languages, foreign characters implementation (double byte characters, non-Unicode fonts), using plain text, and dealing with other culturally significant issues such as colors and icons.

From the start, think about simplifying your content. This is a key factor to successfully localize your e-learning project. Doing so will help you in substantially reducing the cost of localization. Think about using a streamlined design and use widely recognizable formats—your localization team will be allowed to concentrate on the content.

Keep in mind that some projects may be localized up to a 100 different languages, and dealing with various issues outside localization can quickly amount to hours spent on extra work.

Your source text should: 

  • Use only essential words
  • Use clear words
  • Use terms definition consistently
  • Avoid long sentences
  • Avoid excessive punctuation
  • Avoid jargon, slang, metaphors, clichés and idioms

Identify your Target Languages

You need to determine the languages that will be profitable for localization. You do so by figuring out where your e-learning project will be the most efficiently distributed, in line with the costs of localizing in a specific language, the need for information in the target languages, the cultural specific hurdles and the expected life cycle of your information.

Use Folders Intelligently

Instead of duplicating repeated elements such as graphics, buttons, pictures, keep them in a central place to shorten localization time. Keep separate text files and design elements.

Design for Expanding and Contracting Text

One of the major issues you will face when localizing is the need to expand the space for text to accommodate the target language(s).

English and Chinese are considered compact languages, so most of the time these are the source languages of your e-learning project, you will have to consider expansion solutions.

Some languages like German may require up to 35% more space than English. However, Japanese might take up to 60% less space, although the size of characters may play a role. For instance, the word “desktop” in Japanese is translated with one less character than in English, but due to the nature of the characters width of its alphabet, it will take more space than English. And some non-Latin characters, such as Thai, will take much more vertical space than the corresponding Latin ones.

A good example we can use to illustrate the space challenge in translation is the word “view.” The Italian translation is “visualizzazioni”, compare to “view,” it is a three-time bigger space expansion ratio.

And if audio narration is involved, the time-related length of your project becomes a critical factor to take in account. What you will find in space expansion with text is transferred as time expansion with audio.

Minimize Use of Embedded Text

You can’t extract text that is embedded in an image or a video. Consequently, if the localization team is faced with this situation, it will need to re-create all the layered material.

Even text that is not embedded, but placed on top of graphics, can represent a localization challenge since you might be required to retouch the background after removing the text. Unpredictable additional time and cost can ensue.  

Make your Project Culturally Neutral

It is a good idea to design your e-learning project to function in multiple languages, but be aware that certain colors symbols as well as linguistic style have very different meanings depending on the target culture.

Some languages do not use question marks. Slogans and culturally specific styles can be difficult to transpose in some target languages. Be aware that metric measurements is used almost everywhere outside U.S.

Some widely used languages such as Spanish can have very different linguistic styles depending on the region where the language is used — Spain versus Mexico.

  • Red is considered unlucky in Korea
  • Some  hand signals that westerners consider innocuous is offensive in other cultures.
  • Thumbs Up  has a different meaning in other cultures
  • The “Internationally recognized symbol” for “fragile” (i.e. broken wine glass) was presumed as a box of broken glass. Rather than waste space some dock workers threw all the boxes into the sea! 
  • The number “four” is considered unlucky in Japan and is comparable to “thirteen” in the U.S. 

Localization and Translation: Two Different Things

  • Localization is more than textual elements. It includes non-verbal elements such as document design, formatting, layout, colors, graphics, symbols, audio, etc.
  • Translation is textual and has its own set of cultural challenges.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Finalize in one language before localizing
  • Hire professional translators
  • e-learning products often have two versions of source – editable and published. Provide to the localization team editable source files as opposed to published files. Otherwise the team will have to rebuild a new version from the top, which is a costly endeavor.
  • To further reduce localization time, keep repeated elements such as buttons in one central spot, not on each page.


With the significant growing of the e-learning market around the world and specifically in Asia, a sound localization strategy is imperative to the overall success of your project. With a clear vision and good planning you will overcome the challenges of localization by following the steps explained in this article. Doing so will save you time and bring costs under control as well as assuring a respectable level of quality and a sound cross-cultural awareness.  

See also The Art of Voice Over Localization.


  1. ELEARNING – A Global Strategic Business Report. Global Industry Analysts Inc. 2012
  2. Snook A 2005 On-Line Learning – The Eye on the Storm. e-learning zone (
  3. Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why By Ruth Clark