Sloan translates the language of learning

At first glance it looks like any other executive education class: middle-aged students bend over laptops and iPads and a bow-tied lecturer clicks through a PowerPoint presentation. Every so often a student raises a hand with a question; and on occasion, the room explodes with laughter when the professor cracks a joke.

But this is not an average class. For one thing, the 40 students in the room are from 17 countries. For another, the majority are not native English speakers and some have very little knowledge of spoken English.

Welcome to MIT Sloan School of Management’s Global Executive Academy – or GEA – one of the first executive education courses designed to provide non-English speaking managers with a US business education.

Experimental

The GEA, which was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provides its students with simultaneous translation in Arabic, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Most executive education courses in the US, Europe and even parts of Asia are conducted exclusively in English, according to Laura Ziukaite-Hansen, director of executive programmes at MIT Sloan.

“We started the GEA to give people who don’t speak English access to Ivy League-level executive education,” she says. “It’s exciting but it still feels experimental.”

The programme is delivered UN-style. Participants wear headphones so that they can hear the lecture in their own language as well as translations of other students’ questions and comments. PowerPoints are beamed on to four giant screens, each with translated slides.

In delivering the course, the professors have had to make adjustments to their lectures. “They told me I need to slow down and that I can’t make jokes,” says Steven Spear, a professor who ran several of the sessions.

“I realise how many of the examples I use have cultural baggage. Things I take for granted – even statements about how parents and kids relate to each other – I have to stop and think: are they getting this?”

Translation process

The course also gave him a renewed appreciation for the translation process. “If I ask a question and someone puts his hand up, I have to remember that it’s not necessarily because he had the quickest answer, but maybe because he got the quickest translation.”

Tareq Thalji, an investment banker at BNP Paribas in Jordan, who participated in the programme, says he initially feared language would “be a barrier” to classroom instruction. “But it’s not been. Even in social situations, there is always at least one English speaker.” That said, he admits that some things inevitably get lost in translation. “This is not to devalue the translators, but I think about 10 or 20 per cent is missed.”

Executive education courses are a cash cow for business schools with participants often sponsored by their employers. The GEA, which was introduced last year and will run annually, represents a “substantial investment” by the school, according to an MIT Sloan official. The investment includes the cost of translated course notes and slides, fees for translators, as well as marketing materials and campaigns for the programme in multiple languages. Tuition for the two-week programme is about $15,000, not including airfare and lodging.

Networking

A further goal of the programme is to immerse participants in a multicultural environment where they benefit from cross-border networking and international points of view.

Weiman Xiang, a general manager at Midea, the privately held electrical appliance manufacturer in Guangdong, China, does not speak English. He was attracted to the programme for two reasons: the MIT brand and the chance to “interact with people from other countries”.

His biggest takeaway? “Being here makes me think I need to study English,” he says. “I have decided that when I go back home, I am going to provide English language learning to my employees.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.