Multilingualism: tools and challenges

Nov 2014
Multilingual challenges

Introducing the reasoning behind SALTO EuroMed's development of online tools to help educators meet the challenge of sharing knowledge and practice across language barriers: the Educational Portal and the Multiliingual Educational Toolbox. Andrea and Jan take us through current thinking. 


The European Union has always seen its great diversity of cultures and languages as an asset. Firmly rooted in the European treaties, multilingualism is the reflection of this cultural and linguistic diversity. It also makes the European institutions more accessible and transparent for all citizens of the Union, which is essential for the success of the EU’s democratic system. SALTO EuroMed considers multilingualism a very sensitive topic due to its specific mission, shared also with the other regional SALTO centres. A lot of professionals in the different regional areas are doing an excellent educative job every day, without coping with the need to share at international level tools and methodologies that can raise innovative and quality elements. Being comfortable in foreign languages, at least in the most common ones like English, French and German, is not necessarily a characteristic of a good trainer or an educator. Improve quality and effectiveness in their work is instead commonly perceived as a must. While less and less resources are available for educational research and innovation at local level, the society needs to increase investments in quality and innovation in the educational field. Networking is one of the possible solutions for valorising pedagogical practices developed at local level, exploiting the international dimension for their further and faster development.  

The Multilingual Educatiional Toolbox (M.E.T)

The M.E.T. starts from the assumption that giving trainers and educators the possibility to share tools and practices in their own language, will have inclusive and multiplying effects in terms of people motivated to participate and in terms of tools shared. The innovation in the new version of the online tool created by SALTO EUROMed is the possibility to upload a tool only in the local language, without the need to upload the English version first. This result has been possible with the direct involvement of a group of Erasmus+ National Agencies, interested to promote M.E.T. as a tool for national policy and to support the internationalisation of their educational and pedagogical practices. Combined, the M.E.T. and the International Tool Fair, could reasonably be considered one of most fervent cross-sectoral agora at the moment.    

One of the very first experimentations with this new feature has been realized in cooperation with the Italian NA for Erasmus+:Youth in Action and applied to the Italian National Tool Fair in Lecce (3-6 June 2014). This event has been conceived to open the possibility to trainers and tools - that have never been present at international level - to be presented in Italian to a group of trainers and educators active at Italian level. Taking advantage of the heritage of the International Tool Fair’s format and website, all the tools presented have been uploaded directly in the Italian language version of the M.E.T. Once revised after the training event, thanks to the suggestion and tips of other colleagues, they will be validated by SALTO EUROMED and the Italian NA, taking care to provide a summary in English. Five tools presented to this national phase have been selected to participate in the International Tool Fair in Romania in November 2014. The Italian National Agency took the responsibility to support the five trainers selected in the translation and preparation of their tool to be presented in English. The English version will appear in M.E.T. as a translation of the original version in Italian. It’s quite a big change of approach, isn’t it?   



The new “Educational Tools Portal” ( has been conceived and is being developed in order to answer to the need for a multilinguistic approach when it comes to sharing knowledge between nations.

Although the need for a common language is undoubtedly recognized when working in an international environment and it is also a given fact that to be an international trainer/facilitator/educator the required minimum set of competences must include «communication in foreign languages» (which usually, but not necessarily, results in being capable of communicating in English). At the same time awareness is growing for the need to make the sector’s knowledge base increasingly available beyond the limits of language barriers, ensuring effective dissemination and the maximum inclusion for education workers even if only engaged at a local level.

How does this translate in practical choices when building a website aimed at users across the continents, across the Mediterranean and in other Galaxies far far away?

We have chosen from the very draft idea to use a software that has a solid multilingual backbone and is, at the same time, released with an open source licensing that makes it compatible with the strategies of the Commission’s Directorate-General for Informatics (DIGIT).

The portal has been thus set up in a way that a user can choose the preferred language of the main interface of the site. It is not a simple nor a short process making it available in fully translated versions. As a matter of fact, while the drupal developers community is so active and international that translations of it’s core have been made available in almost all official languages of the world and many different dialects, it is also true that all the customized vocabulary, meaning the terms we chose to use specifically for this website, don’t have such a huge community of translators (yet). This means that so far we have full versions in English, French and Italian ready, but that to translate, for instance, the words “tools for learning” into other languages, the path is still long and complex, being more a matter of strategic choices than of word-by-word translation.

And also some important issues are raised by the specific needs of the different sections of the portal:

  • the home page being a sort of a blog gathering and promoting whatever can be relevant to the area of tools for learning and generally speaking all the information regarding SALTO - YOUTH EuroMed resource centre;
  • the Tool Fair section, that will host the yearly edition of the Tool Fair and all the news concerning the main one as well as the newly tested national Tool Fair format;
  • the MET (Multilingual Educational ToolBox) with it’s community of users capable at the same time of interacting with the published tools for learning, and editing new versions or translating the existing ones;
  • the online version of the annual “Tools for Learning Magazine” in its new digital edition;
  • an educational library meant to gather in one specific place the main references that build the know-how and theoretical basis for our field of interest.

Which can be the best multilingual technical solution to fit all the above sections and related needs?

At the moment we are aiming at offering a platform that can offer access to a translated interface and directly to one’s chosen language contents, but with the possibility to search and filter other specific contents in any other language they might have been published.

But the most interesting challenges are not necessarily those of a technical kind such as, for instance, “what kind of php language code lines do we need to customize even further the multilingual approach?”

It is rather those challenges linked to language barriers and the “how and if” to translate words so commonly and deeply rooted in a shared meaning such as, for instance, “tool for learning”. How do we translate it into Spanish? Can we use literal translations when they don’t mean a thing in another language? What about “youth worker”, a concept that in Italian means either nothing as such or a totally different thing? Or isn’t it better to leave some of the concepts in an untranslatable common language, a sort of “educational Esperanto” widely accepted across different countries?

This is clearly a great challenge that most of the members of the large and not-so-precisely-defined community of the above mentioned trainers/facilitators/educators/ should be prepared to invest their time and energy in helping to tackle it.

It is a goal very intimately connected to the sense of belonging and the identity that most professionals of such a community are increasingly trying to develop these days. The motivation that moves all of us to look for, try, comment, modify and - why not? - translate, a tool that someone has developed before us but that can fit our contingent educational needs.

And it is one of the main reasons for the “Educational Tools Portal” to exist: to create an interactive, shared and cooperative environment to help colleagues and experts to work in all possible languages in reaching a common goal: sharing knowledge in our field!




Image Credits: 
Shutterstock, Andrea Messori

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