How to handle language diversity in virtual events?

The challenge

Virtual events do not require travel and have the positive side effect of being open to a bigger and more diverse audience. However, this might increase the diversity of languages at the event and lead to the need to organise interpretation and translation in an effective and efficient way.

In an online setting, language barriers might become an issue even when there would be no problems in face-to-face events. This is especially the case when languages are similar (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese). Some reasons are bad connection and the lack of opportunities to informally ask “neighbours”/fellow workshop participants in case of comprehension problems.


The solution

Different languages and divergent levels of language skills of participants is a common issue, especially in regional projects. Offering translation and virtual interpretation during events increases the potential target group to include participants who are not fluent in the main language. Different language translations can be offered in parallel.

Areas of application:

all types of virtual events.



One main language for the event should be decided. At the same time, separate time slots for interaction in a second language or local languages could be planned.



Materials, e.g. PPT, training material or event documentation need to be available in different languages in advance, to be used by participants in the translated form in parallel to the main language. Experts, therefore, need to be reminded to submit their respective materials well in advance to allow time for translation.

If additional interaction takes place, e.g. in the chat, translation can be handled by common translation tools such as Google Translate or by appointing one bilingual person per language group who assists during the meeting.

Before the meeting, participants could get access to (translated) material. Communication materials, e.g. invitation or agenda, might need to be translated but this is often done by the partners.
It is recommended to send/ give access to the translated version of the PPT in a document management system, so that participants can download it and follow it in parallel to the presentation of the expert/trainer. In some cases, interpretation is not even necessary, if participants have the translated written material.

Organisers should not forget translation of any follow-up materials, e.g. meeting minutes or assignment of tasks.



Speakers and participants should be reminded repeatedly to speak slowly and clearly to be understood by everybody.

Compared to an in-person event, including interpretation is less time consuming and more cost-effective in a virtual event, as it is easier to organise synchronous rather than consecutive interpretation, virtual sessions are typically shorter and no interpretation booths need to be set up. Subtitles (which are possible in some videoconferencing tools) might also be a feasible option. The same principles of work time apply as for in-person meetings, e.g. the need to alternate interpreters after a given time.

Interpretation can be organized either through a professional external company, hiring individual interpreters or assigning a person from the organizing team or the participants in case there is one with appropriate language skills.

Language diversity needs to be considered at the early stage of event design and planning. For example:

  • Introduction and warm-up exercises should have a format that is suitable for different language groups.
  • Small-group work might require multiple interpreters or needs to be organized by language group

If the meeting will be interpreted, it is recommended to have an exchange with the interpreters beforehand to be sure that the technical access is working on both channels and to brief him/her about the content and the participants.

Interpretation during the event can support various languages at the same time.
If a professional interpreter is not available, interpretation can be offered in a spontaneous way by a project team member or a colleague.

To allow people, who are not fluent in the main language, to express themselves, separate time slots for interaction in a second language/ local languages could be planned. A project team member or a bilingual colleague can interpret or summarize the discussion for those who do not speak this language.


Tools and technical aspects

Translated material could be uploaded on a learning or document management system such as Moodle or Nextcloud, so that participants can download it, e.g. a PowerPoint presentation, beforehand and view it in parallel.

Some videoconferencing tools offer separate communication channels for interpretation. To be able to use this channel, all participants need to have permission to download and install the videoconferencing application. The interpreters need a thorough introduction to the videoconferencing tool.

Another option is to open a second channel for participants of one language group including the interpreter in another application, e.g. a mobile messenger or other group call. All participants follow the videoconference programme visually but mute the audio, and only the sound (audio and mic) of the second communication channel is on. The interpreter has the sound in the videoconference programme on, but the mic off; he/she has the mic in the second communication channel on and the sound off.

Other considerations

Appoint one person per language group who is in direct contact with the moderator and/or the project assistant to check if all participants of this language group can follow.

A member of the organizing team, e.g. the project assistant, should collect all telephone numbers for a parallel channel of interpretation and check whether everyone has access to the second communication channel. He or she can also translate entries in the chat with the help of a translation tool, if necessary, and informally assist with interpretation, in case of suitable language skills.

The moderator needs to actively include the participants of the secondary language group(s). He or she needs to repeatedly remind participants to speak clearly and slowly as language barriers are higher due to lack of informal and non-verbal communication. Presenters and experts should also speak slowly to allow time for the interpreters.


Suzana Lange

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