My friend, for example, is Italian by birth, lives in Greece, and delivers keynotes at conferences in her third language, English. I am deeply inspired by people who have such skill with languages to speak so many of them, and have the confidence to do so on the stage!
In my role as project lead for Mautic, I interact with a lot of folks for whom English isn't their first language.
Mautic is an international open source project. We have over 64 languages available and people in our community who speak most of them. Our largest user base is in Brazil, where Portuguese is the primary language, closely followed by Europe and the USA. Why, therefore, would we want to run our conferences only in English, like so many open source projects, when we have such linguistic diversity in our community?
From our very first conference, I was keen that we enabled people - if they wanted - to speak at our Global event in their language of choice, rather than be forced into speaking in English.
Our first ever event in 2020, at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, had seven languages represented: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and Italian. Nowadays we generally have around 4-5 languages in our conferences.
Here's how we manage it.
1 - Set requirements to run a language track
When we first started out, if a session was submitted in a language, we accepted it providing it was aligned with our Code of Conduct and our vision for the event. Over time, we realised that it was a lot of work to only have one or two sessions in a language, and it made for quite a disrupted schedule.
Now, we have set some minimum requirements for a language track to be established - three sessions, and someone who is willing to be the MC and work with the event team to organise and coordinate the track (which could be one of the speakers, if they have someone to MC their session).
This works much better as it encourages collaboration in the community, but also it means we don't have to find someone to manage the track during the event. It also means we have someone to help with reviewing and translating the sessions when they are submitted, and to help with promotion of the event in that language.
Some of our speakers pointed out that they felt their session would reach a wider audience if it was delivered in English, but they wanted to be a part of their first language track. Therefore, we offered the opportunity for them to do the session in English, and in their first language.
Some of our speakers decided to pre-record the English track and do their first language session live, for example, to make it easier to edit and proof the recording. This was a lot less pressure for them than delivering it live if they were less confident in their English.
2 - Use the tools to your advantage
Our first events used a tool called Veertly, and more recently we are using Airmeet. In both tools, we were able to create multiple rooms which ran simultaneously alongside each other, which meant that we could have an English track running at the same time as a Spanish and German track.
The tools allowed us to have an MC for each track (someone who spoke the language, and was willing to introduce each speaker and go through the Q&A at the end) and to make it clear that between certain times the tracks were going to be running in a specified language.
This meant that we could clearly signify on our schedule when tracks would be in specific languages, so that it was easier for people to navigate. Speak Japanese? You'll have a track from 5am UTC to 12 noon UTC in Room 6. English? Track 1 from 8am-6pm UTC. German? Track 3 from 8am - 3pm UTC. You get the drift.
We used Sessionize as our tool for managing our Call for Speakers, displaying our schedule and speakers on the website, and with Veertly, embedding the schedule into the event and the individual rooms themselves (before they had an agenda feature).
With Sessionize we created a custom field for the language that the session would be delivered in, which allowed us to have this as a filterable value. It made it much easier for organising the tracks, and makes it clear for attendees.
Unfortunately Sessionize does not allow you to translate the questions / copy on the Call for Speakers, which is a shame, as it's off-putting to non-English speakers.
We also provided the option to supply a pre-recorded video or to deliver the sessions live. While the playing of a pre-recording was a bit technically challenging during the early-pandemic-tech-tool era, it became much smoother in later years.
3 - Plan your event to factor in cultural differences
We had to consider cultural factors when scheduling sessions - from the basics of starting one of the days very early in European timezones to enable the Japanese track to run at a sensible time of day for them, to scheduling breaks at appropriate times of the day and taking into account things like school starting/finishing times and how that impacted our team of MCs, our speakers and our attendees.
You're not going to be able to fit every single need into the scheduling, but you can try your best!
We found it really helpful to have the track leads (typically from the country of the track speakers and attendees) give us feedback on these areas when preparing the scheduling.
We also had to take into account and plan for unexpected eventualities like power cuts, which are common in come countries and led to some difficulties with some of our speakers and MCs. We had a team of 'runners' who were available to pick up if there was a problem during the event.
These folks were amazing - they learned every aspect of the event platform and were ready to go at a minute's notice. As technology has improved over the years we've had less of these emergencies, but it's always a good idea to have a couple of people, and maybe a couple of speakers, in reserve and ready to go in case you have some emergency that comes up.
We also gave clearer briefs about what was needed at the MC and speaker's side - for example a wired internet connection where possible and good lighting. There was an online connection test we could ask them to take beforehand, and we offered a dry-run to go through how the platform worked both for the MC and the speakers.
4 - Communicate timings in a single timezone (eg UTC)
With people from all over the world, we decided to always communicate timings using UTC. That way we could avoid confusion with the many timezones that were involved.
When we invite speakers to submit a session, we ask them what time slots work best for them, in UTC. We give three-hour chunks eg 9am-12noon, 12noon-3pm etc.
We then try our best to schedule their session as close as possible to that timezone.
This is the main dictator of how many tracks we run at an event - if we have to accommodate more people in a specific timezone, we have to run more tracks, or more days.
5 - Enlist the help of your community with marketing and communications
Something we haven't really done as well as we'd like, is being able to communicate with our audience in their first languages. In recent years, we've tried to involve our track leads and volunteers in helping us to translate the website, our marketing materials and communications, into other languages.
This is much easier to do when you're organised well ahead and have a lot of time, but in many cases we ended up doing things at short notice, and didn't have time to get them translated. Enlisting the help of your community can really support this process. Likewise being able to use a tool like Mautic where you're able to send translated versions of content automatically based on the language selected makes life much easier as an organiser!
Hopefully this gives you some ideas for how to organise events within your community in languages other than just English - I'd love to hear how you get on or what challenges you face! Please drop a comment below!