Cultural references are the customs and habits specific to a social group. As a linguistic services provider, we come across two types of cultural references in e-learning content: the first one is part of the storyboard, while the second one is hidden in the details. Whether you are a marketer, a trainer or an instructional designer, you probably use cultural references in your training. What do they become when you go global?  Copied and pasted, they will confuse foreign learners and lower retention. Here are some examples of cultural blunders we have come across, and how to fix them.

Media, images, people and customs

Translating cultural referencesLet’s first look at the cultural references that are embedded in the e-learning storyboard. Adaptation is recommended for the foreign learner to relate to the story, as you can see in the following examples:

A quality consultancy firm asked us to translate a training program for China. The learners were evaluated in a game mimicking the popular US TV show Let’s Make a Deal!  The show had not been broadcast in China so that the Chinese learners couldn’t grasp its purpose. With our client’s consent, we introduced the game with some guidelines that weren’t included in the U.S. version.

Other times, the cultural reference is more subtle: in a training program designed by a French carmaker for their repair centers worldwide, the mechanic proposed an appointment ten days later, on a Friday, to fix the air conditioning. Translating into Arab brought up two issues: in hot countries, air conditioning repair doesn’t wait ten days. What’s more, garages are closed on Fridays in most Gulf countries.

In a blended learning onboarding game, the learner had to guess the traits of his new colleagues using a card game. One of the cards depicted a person with siblings. It’s unlikely to apply to Chinese employees, given the single child policy. We recommended redesigning the card to display a family instead.

The choice of actors, either real or animated, can also have a strong cultural connotation. Targeting a global audience can lead to changing the cast. For a construction training program that needed to be translated into French, we modified the characters to reflect gender equality in France. For French-speaking North African countries, we adapted the story again.

Cultural references can also hide in the images, such as monuments and the New York yellow cabs.

Standards, puns and syntax

The second group of cultural references occurs at a more granular level. The storyboard isn’t impacted, and the content is simply transcribed to fit the target language.

Standards, tools and materials

In technical training, we often stumble upon country-specific tools and standards that aren’t always in the textbooks:

  • T55 flour in a French pastry course becomes tipo 0 farina in Italian,
  • Philips #2 screwdriver,
  • 18 AWG cable.

Numerical formats, currencies and units also differ from country to country:

  • Decimals: 1,000.00 in the U.S. becomes 1 000,00 in France and 1.000,00 in Italy,
  • Phone numbers :+1 262-635-8340 in the U.S. and +33 (0)1 34 56 78 90 in France.

Puns and acronyms

  • Puns, sayings and expressions. They are mostly specific to the country of origin and require rewording in the target language.
  • Acronyms. Take, for example, the term SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based). How do you translate it for the languages with no alphabet, like Chinese? You can choose an expression that describes the concept and include it in the glossary.


Many Latin and Germanic languages use noun genders and declension; they rule out quizzes that require to fill in the blanks. Based on the printed words in the sentence, it’s easy to guess the answer. Here’s an example in French:

En Europe, seul_______ [le Vatican, la France, l’Allemagne] est moins peuplé que l’Andorre.

The masculine declension of the adjectives « seul » and « peuplé » gives the answer away. We replaced the sentences featuring blanks with multiple-choice questions.


In French, www. is pronounced doubleV-doubleV-doubleV ,  troisdoubleV in Quebec and oué-oué-oué in Belgium.

How to manage cultural references

The ideal solution is to eliminate the major cultural references impacting the storyboard in the design phase. Choosing neutral imagery and characters is also critical. You can get useful insight from linguistic experts or collaborators living in the country you’re targeting.
Once the program is ready to be translated, you can rely on your linguistic services provider to single out the remaining cultural references and find workarounds. You won’t need to rewrite the original content, so it’s a good compromise between ensuring your training is engaging and controlling cost and time-to-market.


In conclusion, cultural references, whether major or minor, are often present in e-learning content. If a program targets an international audience, the best solution is to validate the storyboard with native speakers in your organization or with your linguistic partner. That way, you’ll avoid producing content that isn’t relevant to your foreign audience. Once your program is finished and handed over for translation, your linguistic partner will draw your attention to the remaining minor cultural references, such as units and puns, and propose solutions to circumvent them.