The Digital Campus

The Digital Campus

Bilingual communications


Creating content in several languages is pretty much business as usual for most Swiss universities. After all, Switzerland has four official languages and most Swiss universities have to deal with at least two of those in addition to English.

For a small country like Switzerland, multilingual communication is essential to reach students in Switzerland and even more so to reach those living abroad. In fact, the priority to showcase education to an international audience is such that Switzerland has a gateway presenting all universities for the international market called “Studying in Switzerland” that is in available only in English.

A little history first

Canada has two official languages: English and French. The government practices official bilingualism, which also provides Canadian citizens the right to receive federal government services in either language. Despite this, provinces can determine their own official language. In fact, the only bilingual provide in New Brunswick. In 1977, French became the official language for the province of Quebec.

Université de Montreal

William Raillant-Clark - udemI met William Raillant-Clark, international press officer for the Université de Montreal (UdeM),  at a science conference (AAAS)  in Washington, DC. Immediately we started talking and comparing notes on the challenges of bilingual communication in higher education. It is important to point out that William, born in New Zealand, is a native English speaker but lived many years in France. His bilingualism is a great asset to his work at UdeM.

We finally got a chance to speak again a couple of weeks ago on the very subject. Reto Siffert from University of Fribourg, the only bilingual university in Switzerland, joined as well to compare notes.

UdeM 101

  • Université de Montreal is a monolingual university: French is the official language
  • English can be used for outreach to audiences outside of Quebec (aka English-speaking press)
  • More facts and figures (in French)

The predominance of French over English is clear when you visit their website.

University of Montreal website

The website in French (right) is much richer than the one in English (left).

And most social media accounts are in French except for the Twitter account that William manages.

University of Montreal twitter account

The team

The press outreach team at UdeM consists of two people: William and a colleague. William is responsible for press outreach to the English-speaking audience while his colleague manages press outreach to the French-speaking media.

In addition to his press outreach responsibilities, William determines whether news content should be translated into English. If he finds that content would be of interest to an English-speaking audience, then he sends the news for translation to be later distributed to press and/or via social media. Obviously, the fact that William is a native English speaker helps ensure that the communication is authentic and the tone appropriate.

Translation: In-house or outsourced?

Given the fact that William is pretty much the only official English-speaking press officer, the content is translated outside the university. In-house translation only occurs in case of urgency or last resort. Also consider, that 95% of content is produced in French so outside help is imperative.

Bilingual staff

For the most part, most employees are bilingual but by rule all employees must speak French. New staff that does not speak French are offered a wide range of support to facilitate their learning.

Language in Recruiting: Hello Portuguese!

International students are of primordial importance for Université de Montreal. In fact, Brazil is a country where Université de Montreal is prioritizing to the point that it has a website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook account to this effect in Portuguese.

udem Brasil


Although the context and example of Université de Montreal is not exactly comparable to that of Swiss universities, both Reto and I agreed that there were a few takeaways from William’s work:

  1. Clear decision-making process regarding translation
  2. Clear focus and priority aid #1
  3. Relying on professional translation is smart to make bilingual communication sustainable.
  4. Smart use of language for recruitment (i.e. Brazil)

What other aspects of bilingual communication do you find challenging? Please let us know to continue exploring the topic in 2014.

Author: Florencia Prada

Florencia Prada is the Head of Digital Marketing at swissnex San Francisco. While she loves all things tech, she tries hard not to get carried away by shiny objects and new ideas that are all too pervasive in Silicon Valley.

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