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Customers Have Firms, Interpreters at Their Fingertips

A service being tested helps limited-English speakers talk with some businesses for free.

October 19, 2006|From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Judy Tao speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese but not English, making even a quick call to the bank to check her balance a task that requires advance planning and assistance from her English-speaking sister.

So when she heard about a new service that will let her dial up an interpreter who would translate her phone conversations with her bank, the city government and several other businesses for free, she put down her grocery bag to find out more.

"I'm old, and my English is not good," Tao, 70, said through an interpreter on a Chinatown sidewalk. "I know my weakness and I try to be prepared, but sometimes if there's no one to help me, I'm really stuck."

The Your World, Your Language service, a collaboration between telecommunications giant AT&T Inc. and interpretation provider Language Line Services, was launched Wednesday. It is the latest effort by companies and government agencies to reach out to immigrants, tourists and business travelers with limited English proficiency.

The program uses a toll-free telephone number that connects foreign-language speakers to interpreters who can translate Tao's Mandarin ni hao, a Spanish hola or a Korean yeoboseyo into "hello" within seconds and help callers pay utility bills or discuss insurance in the comfort of their own languages.

The pilot program is available for now only in San Francisco, where limited-English-speaking residents such as Tao make up nearly half the population and millions of foreign tourists pass through every year. But AT&T and Language Line Services hope to take it nationwide within the next year and a half.

"Clearly, the demographics of the country are staggering, and we believe once the service is readily available it will be used by millions," said Louis Provenzano, president of Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services.

The service is paid for by the companies and organizations that have signed up. The cost can vary, but the average 10-minute phone call comes out to about $15, Provenzano said.

As part of their partnership, Language Line Services is providing the interpreters and AT&T is routing calls and maintaining the telephone network.

Language Line already offers over-the-phone interpreters versed in more than 170 languages to government agencies, healthcare institutions, insurers and other companies, including San Antonio-based AT&T.

The difference with the toll-free telephone translator service is that it puts the initiative in the hands of customers, who can contact a business or organization feeling confident their needs will be understood accurately.

The service might be particularly useful for the elderly, who often have to rely on their children or grandchildren for translations, said Helen Comullo, a spokeswoman for the Philippine Consulate General.

"Some of them have a really difficult time trying to make it on their own," Comullo said.

The idea behind Your World, Your Language is not purely philanthropic, though, and came in part from the businesses testing the service, said Jody Garcia, an AT&T vice president for specialty customer care. Frustrated by the uncertain success of multilingual advertising campaigns, the companies wanted a better way to reach a "warm lead," someone who is already interested in a product or service.

"It's clear customers are looking to reach us in the language of their choice," Garcia said. "It's a way for business to grow their bottom line and really value the consumer."

The service will be initially available in eight languages that reflect the diversity of San Francisco: Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. The range of businesses participating in the pilot program is limited for now and includes Dish Network, Orbitz, the San Francisco Opera, Cingular Wireless and the city government.

For the city, which has struggled to link its diverse array of residents with information such as where to vote and how to find parks, the program was "a perfect match," said Scott Oswald at the mayor's office of neighborhood services.

"Our goal is to reach more and more folks and help them out," said Oswald, explaining that as a public entity the city was invited to take part in the program for free.

Immigrant advocates also see potential in the service. Immigrants have been hamstrung and shut out by the difficulty of communicating over the phone in an unfamiliar language, advocates say. But with the service, they may have an easier time negotiating for what they need, even if it's just satellite television or a new long-distance phone plan.

"Our dysfunctional laws may have immigration authorities still looking for green cards, but major companies are just looking for consumers," said Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at San Francisco's Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "This shows how interdependent our economy in general is with immigrants who are here."

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