Dial-a-translator

Francisco "Paco" Inzunza talks on the phone with a Latino parent to translate for the principal during his visit to Eastwood Elementary School, where he used to work.

KAI RYSSDAL: Yesterday at 7:46 in the morning, somewhere in this country, the 300 millionth American was born. So says the Census Bureau. But a good part of the growth that got us to that number didn't come from babies being born here. About 40 percent came from immigration. A business service marketed squarely at those immigrants launched today in San Francisco. Rachel Dornhelm has the story.


RACHEL DORNHELM: Think of it like 1-800-TRANSLATOR.
SOUND: Welcome to Your World, Your Language service. To continue in English press 1 . . .

It sounds like many voice mail systems . . . at first.

But the language menu continues: press 3 for Mandarin, 4 for Cantonese. There's also Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean and Russian. Your World, Your Language is meant to hook limited English speakers up with companies eager for their business. It's free for consumers. And Language Line Services President Louis Provenzano says it puts people in touch with vital services.

LOUIS PROVENZANO: Do they want insurance? Do they want utilities? Do they want telecommunications?

Language Line Services has teamed up with AT&T to offer the new hotline, the first of its kind. Provenzano says 1 in 5 people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home and that number is on the rise.

PROVENZANO: And 75 percent, interestingly enough, of the limited-English-speaking people prefer to speak in their native language. And they're also four times more likely to buy a product or service in their preferred language.

That's what Your World, Your Language partners hope. They don't want to lose anymore of the estimated trillion-plus dollars a year immigrant communities spend. Businesses taking part in the San Francisco launch include Dish Network, Cingular Wireless, and 1-800-DENTIST. They'll pay for each call directed their way, and then for the number of minutes a translator is on the telephone.

SOUND: Hi, I have Danyune on the line who would like to apply for a credit card with your bank. Great, what is your full name please? . . .

Jody Garcia is responsible for AT&T's diverse markets segment. She says the team picked San Francisco for the initial rollout because almost half of the city's residents say they'd prefer to do business in a language other than English.

JODY GARCIA: And so, as corporations are really looking to grow their bottom line, it only makes sense that you really get serious about serving these customers in their language.

UC Berkeley business professor Priya Raghubir says there is no question that the hotline taps a growing market. But she says literal translation is only a first step. As companies start to market more aggressively to limited English speakers she says they will have to understand and interpret value systems too.

PRIYA RAGUBHIR: The banking service who truly understands the Chinese customer, for example, would understand that there is a concern amongst the Chinese community about being in debt . . . and is able to deal with that by reframing a transaction.

But Raghubir predicts the widespread use of such marketing is a few years off. In the meantime, Your World, Your Language will be in over 40 cities by the end of 2007, including Denver, Houston, Charlotte and New York.

In San Francisco, I'm Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.

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