Posted by: sbilingual | December 24, 2012

Tips for speaking English abroad

Learn to say “do you speak English” in the local language.

“YOU SEE, what we need here is some cleaning-up liquid, some disinfectant. Would it be possible for you to bring me some?” The hostel receptionist, a petrified-looking Chinese woman in her twenties, nodded openmouthed and started typing something, anything, into the computer at her desk. It was so palpably uncomfortable, I started blushing for her. The complainer, a British backpacker who had spilled heaven-knows-what in her room, looked at me in confusion. “She understood that, right? I mean, I was pretty clear. I mean, she works in a hotel. She should understand what I’m asking, right?” The next year, in an expat pub with my Korean coworker Flora, a Canadian friend of mine approached the table. I introduced him to my pretty colleague. “Hiiiii Flora,” he said slowly, waving his hand back and forth. “My. Name. Jacob.” She nodded her hello, and he beamed a big children’s TV host grin. “Can” (palms up) “I” (points to self) “buy” (holds up money) “you” (points to Flora) “a drink?” (mimes swigging from a bottle) martini Flora volleyed back in her fluent English. “Actually, we just bought some drinks, so maybe another time.” Jacob smiled again. “Your” (points to her) “English” (talking motion with his hands) “very goooood!” (two thumbs up) Most travelers have witnessed these awkward English exchanges. In the former example, the woman seemed to assume that anyone working at a hotel must speak fluent (rambling) English. In the latter, the man’s simplified language and charades were so over-the-top, he came across as patronizing. Doesn’t every traveler have a story like this? A glad-I’m-not-like-that-jerk tale? It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at these obvious gaffes and grumble about ignorance, but it’s not easy to navigate a language barrier. Is it presumptuous to try and communicate in fluid English when abroad? Is it condescending to simplify your speech when talking to a non-native English speaker? The “issue” here is hard to pin down. Some travelers believe it’s their responsibility to learn the local language when they go to a foreign place. Some believe that, with English being learned all over the world, it’s realistic to assume they will meet English speakers anywhere. Some folks feel deeply awkward in these exchanges, worried about imposition or offense. Some feel the opposite, that tourism is what it is, there’s a lot of economic good coming from the industry, and no one should feel guilty about not speaking the local language. Mostly, the awkwardness arises in knowing (or not knowing) how to modify one’s speech when talking to someone who isn’t fluent in your language. There are no cut-and-dried methods for easy communication, as so many factors are at play (fluency, shyness, cultural beliefs and behaviors, to name a few). I have though, in my travels, picked up a few tips that can make a difference. 1. Breaking the ice Most of us know the ugly stereotype of the tourist shouting in mockingly slow English at a hapless waiter or concierge. We know that embarrassment from hearing “DOES ANYONE UNDERSTAND ENGLISH?” yelled from the impatient mouth of a fellow traveler. I’d call that the “wrong way” to figure out if the person you’re addressing speaks English. So is there a right way to open a conversation? In my experience, when traveling to a foreign country, learning how to say “do you speak English” in the local language can help a lot. Approaching someone with English, especially outside a touristy locale, puts them on the spot to respond in English. In travel, I’ve unwittingly forced a lot of uncomfortable people to stammer out “umm….English…no” before scooting off. I’ve learned that it’s a lot less awkward to use their native tongue, even for one basic phrase, so the person you’ve approached has the option to simply shake their head. 2. Speaking vs. listening A fact to bear in mind is that for most language learners, their comprehension is stronger than their output. This means that while a non-native English speaker may communicate in basic phrases, they can hear and follow spoken English better than you think. When conversing, you don’t need to pare down your thoughts into Tarzan-speak just because your buddy uses very simple sentences. This doesn’t mean you can speak as breezily as you would back home. Your communication should be comprehensive enough if you are speaking clearly and phrasing your thoughts in a simple way (“can you…” instead of “well, if you could possibly arrange…”). 3. Pride and language Living and traveling in East Asia, almost every encounter I’ve had with a local person involves some humility. “I don’t speak English well,” is a phrase that foreigners hear constantly, from the English Language PhD candidate in Guangzhou to the mother raising bicultural kids with an Australian dad in Korea. Their English is usually far more advanced than they claim, and this humility is more cultural than literal. What’s more, in cultures where saving face is important, people are incredibly worried about making a language slip-up, and will sometimes hesitate to speak for that reason. When speaking to someone in English, don’t give up if the conversation is choppy at first. Often, shyness is the culprit, and they will loosen up in the company of a friendly conversation partner. Sometimes, they haven’t spoken English in a while, and it takes a few minutes to get back into the rhythm of fluid speaking. If someone is trying to converse, even if they’re struggling a bit, I’ll give them my time and patience as much as possible.

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Posted by: sbilingual | December 23, 2012

Languages of the United States

Languages of the United States

Languages of the United States
Official language(s) None at federal level
Main language(s) English 82.1%, Spanish 10.7%,other Indo-European 3.8%,Asian and Pacific island languages 2.7%,other languages 0.7% (2000 census)[1]
Indigenous language(s) NavajoCentral Alaskan Yup’ikDakota,Western ApacheKeresCherokeeZuni,OjibweO’odham,[2]

Mainimmigrant language(s) SpanishChineseFrenchGerman,TagalogVietnameseItalian
Mainforeign language(s) SpanishFrenchGermanItalian,Japanese.[4]
Sign language(s) American Sign Language,
Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language,
Plains Indian Sign Language
Commonkeyboard layout(s) QWERTY
KB United States-NoAltGr.svg
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English is the de facto national language of the United States, with 82% of the population claiming it as a mother tongue, and some 96% claiming to speak it “well” or “very well”.[5] However, no official language exists at the federal level. There have been several proposals to make English the national language in amendments to immigration reform bills,[6][7] but none of these bills has become law with the amendment intact. The situation is quite varied at the state and territorial levels, with some states mirroring the federal policy of adopting no official language in a de jure capacity, others adopting English alone, others officially adopting English as well as local languages, and still others adopting a policy of de facto bilingualism.

The variety of English spoken in the United States is known as American English; together with Canadian English it makes up the group of dialects known as North American English.

Spanish is the second most common language in the country, and is spoken by over 12% of the population.[8] The United States holds the world’s fifth largest Spanish-speaking population, outnumbered only by MexicoSpain,Colombia, and Argentina. Throughout the Southwestern United States, long-established Spanish-speaking communities coexist with large numbers of more recent Hispanophone immigrants. Although many new Latin American immigrants are less than fluent in English, nearly all second-generationHispanic Americans speak English fluently, while only about half still speak Spanish.[9]

According to the 2000 US census, people of German ancestry make up the largest single ethnic group in the United States, and the German languageranks fifth.[10][11] ItalianPolish, and Greek are still widely spoken among populations descending from immigrants from those countries in the early 20th century, but the use of these languages is dwindling as the older generations die. Russian is also spoken by immigrant populations.

Tagalog and Vietnamese have over one million speakers each in the United States, almost entirely within recent immigrant populations. Both languages, along with the varieties of the Chinese languageJapanese, and Korean, are now used in elections in AlaskaCaliforniaHawaiiIllinois,New YorkTexas, and Washington.[12]

Native American languages are spoken in smaller pockets of the country, but these populations are decreasing, and the languages are almost never widely used outside of reservations. Hawaiian, although having few native speakers, is an official language along with English at the state level inHawaii. The state government of Louisiana offers services and documents in French, as does New Mexico in Spanish. Besides English, Spanish, French, German, Navajo and other Native American languages, all other languages are usually learned from immigrant ancestors that came after the time of independence or learned through some form of education.

Approximately 337 languages are spoken or signed by the population, of which 176 are indigenous to the area. 52 languages formerly spoken in the country’s territory are now extinct.[13]



Census statistics

Languages in United States of America
English 80%
Spanish 12.3%
Chinese Languages 2.3%
French 0.5%
Native American Languages 0.9%
Hawallian Language 0.2%
Other European languages 2.2%
Indian Languages 1.6%
Other Languages 0.1%
Language Spoken at Home
(U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2005)
Language Spoken at Home
(U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2009)

According to the 2000 census,[11] the main languages by number of speakers older than five are:

  1. English – 215 million
  2. Spanish – 28 million
  3. Chinese languages – 2.0 million + (mostly Cantonese speakers, with a growing group of Mandarin speakers)
  4. French – 1.6 million
  5. German – 1.4 million (High German) + German dialects like Hutterite GermanTexas GermanPennsylvania GermanPlautdietsch
  6. Tagalog – 1.2 million + (Most Filipinos may also know otherPhilippine languages, e.g. IlokanoPangasinanBikol languages, andVisayan languages)
  7. Vietnamese – 1.0 million
  8. Italian – 1.0 million
  9. Korean – 890,000
  10. Russian – 710,000
  11. Polish – 670,000
  12. Arabic – 610,000
  13. Portuguese – 560,000
  14. Japanese – 480,000
  15. French Creole – 450,000 (mostly Louisiana Creole French – 334,500)
  16. Greek – 370,000
  17. Hindi – 320,000
  18. Persian – 310,000
  19. Urdu – 260,000
  20. Gujarati – 240,000
  21. Armenian – 200,000

Additionally, modern estimates indicate that American Sign Language is signed by as many as 500,000 Americans.[16]

Official language status

The United States does not have a national official language; nevertheless, English (specifically American English) is the primary language used for legislation, regulations, executive orders, treaties, federal court rulings, and all other official pronouncements; although there are laws requiring documents such as ballots to be printed in multiple languages when there are large numbers of non-English speakers in an area.

As part of what has been called the English-only movement, some states have adopted legislation granting official status to English. As of April 2011, out of 50 states, 28 had established English as the official language, including Hawaii where English and Hawaiian are both official.

Place English official Other language(s) Note Ref
Alabama Yes No since 1990 [17]
Alaska Yes No since 2007; 1998 law ruled unconstitutional [18]
Arizona Yes No since 2006; 1988 law ruled unconstitutional [19]
Arkansas Yes No since 1987 [17]
California Yes No since 1986 [17]
Colorado Yes No since 1988 [17]
Connecticut No No [17]
Delaware No No [17]
Florida Yes No since 1988 [17]
Georgia Yes No since 1996 [17]
Hawaii Yes Hawaiian since 1978 [17]
Idaho Yes No since 2007 [17]
Illinois Yes No since 1969; “American” official 1923-1969 [17]
Indiana Yes No since 1984 [17]
Iowa Yes No since 2002 [17]
Kansas Yes No since 2007 [17]
Kentucky Yes No since 1984 [17]
Louisiana No No [17]
Maine No No [17]
Maryland No No [17]
Massachusetts No No [17]
Michigan No No [17]
Minnesota No No [17]
Mississippi Yes No since 1987 [17]
Missouri No No [17]
Montana Yes No since 1995 [17]
Nebraska Yes No since 1923 [17]
Nevada No No [17]
New Hampshire Yes No since 1995 [17]
New Jersey No No [17]
New Mexico No No Spanish has had special status since
1912 passage of state constitution
see article
New York No No [17]
North Carolina Yes No since 1987 [17]
North Dakota Yes No since 1987 [17]
Ohio No No [17]
Oklahoma Yes No since 2010 [20]
Oregon No No English Plus since 1989 [17]
Pennsylvania No No [17]
Rhode Island No No English Plus since 1992 [17]
South Carolina Yes No since 1987 [17]
South Dakota Yes No since 1995 [17]
Tennessee Yes No since 1984 [17]
Texas No No [17]
Utah Yes No since 2000 [17]
Vermont No No [17]
Virginia Yes No since 1981 [17]
Washington No No English Plus since 1989 [17]
West Virginia No No [17]
Wisconsin No No [17]
Wyoming Yes No since 1996 [17]
American Samoa Yes Samoan [21]
District of Columbia No No [citation needed]
Guam Yes Chamorro [citation needed]
Northern Mariana Islands Yes ChamorroCarolinian [citation needed]
Puerto Rico Yes Spanish [22]
U.S. Virgin Islands Yes No [23]

States that are de facto bilingual

Status of other languages

The state of Alaska provides voting information in IñupiaqCentral Yup’ikGwich’inSiberian YupikKoyukon, and Tagalog, as well as English.

California has agreed to allow the publication of state documents in other languages to represent minority groups and immigrant communities. Languages such as SpanishChineseKoreanTagalogPersianRussianVietnamese, and Thai appear in official state documents, and the Department of Motor Vehicles publishes in 9 languages.[25]

In New Mexico, although the state constitution does not specify an official language, laws are published in English and Spanish, and government material and services are legally required (by Act) to be made accessible to speakers of both languages. Some have asserted that the New Mexico situation is part of the provisions in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; however, no mention of “language rights” is made in the Treaty or in the Protocol of Querétaro, beyond the “Mexican inhabitants” having (1) no reduction of rights below those of citizens of the United States and (2) precisely the same rights as are mentioned in Article III of the Treaty of theLouisiana Purchase and in the Treaty of the Florida Purchase. This would imply that the legal status of the Spanish language in New Mexico and in non-Gadsden Purchase areas of Arizona is the same as of French in Louisiana and certainly not less than that of German in Pennsylvania.

Percentage of people 5 years and over who speak Spanish at home: 2008.

Second most prevalent language in each US state.

Contrary to belief, the state of Pennsylvania was never officially bilingual. The state has a history of Pennsylvania Dutch Germanlanguage communities that goes back to the 1650s. There were attempts to recognize German in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the prevalence of German speakers in the state. This situation prevailed until the 1950s in some rural areas.[citation needed]

The state of New York had state government documents (i.e., vital records) co-written in the Dutch language until the 1920s, in order to preserve the legacy of New Netherland, though England annexed the colony in 1664.[26]

Native American languages are official or co-official on many of the U.S. Indian reservations and pueblos. In Oklahoma before statehood in 1907, territory officials debated whether or not to have Cherokee,Choctaw and Muscogee languages as co-official, but the idea never gained ground.

The issue of bilingualism also applies in the states of Arizona andTexas, while the constitution of Texas has no official language policy. Arizona passed a proposition in the November 7, 2006 general election declaring English as the official language.[27] Nonetheless, Arizona law requires the distribution of voting ballots in languages such as Navajo and Tohono O’odham in certain counties.[28]

In 2000, the census bureau printed the standard census questionnaires in six languages: EnglishSpanishKoreanChinese(in traditional characters), Vietnamese, and Tagalog.

Indigenous languages

Native American languages

Native American languages predate European settlement of the New World. In a few parts of the U.S. (mostly on Indian reservations), they continue to be spoken fluently. Most of these languages areendangered, although there are efforts to revive them. Normally the fewer the speakers of a language the greater the degree of endangerment, but there are many small Native American language communities in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) which continue to thrive despite their small size. In 1929, speaking of indigenous Native American languages, linguist Edward Sapir observed:

“Few people realize that within the confines of the United States there is spoken today a far greater variety of languages … than in the whole of Europe. We may go further. We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe.”[29]

According to the 2000 Census and other language surveys, the largest Native American language-speaking community by far is the Navajo. Navajo is an Athabascan language with 178,000 speakers, primarily in the states of ArizonaNew Mexico and Utah, in addition to smaller numbers of speakers across the country. Dakota is a Siouan language with 18,000 speakers in the US alone (22,000 including speakers in Canada), not counting 6,000 speakers of the closely related Lakota. Most speakers live in the states of North Dakota and South DakotaCentral Alaskan Yup’ik is an Eskimo-Aleut language with 16,000 speakers, most of whom live in Alaska.Cherokee belongs to the Iroquoian language family, and had about 22,000 speakers as of 2005.[30]

The Cherokee have the largest tribal affiliation in the U.S., but most are of mixed ancestry and do not speak the language. Recent efforts to preserve and increase the Cherokee language in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina have been productive. Western Apache, with 12,500 speakers, is a Southern Athabaskan language closely related to Navajo, but not mutually intelligible with it. Most speakers live in Arizona. The O’odham language, spoken by the Pima and the Tohono O’odham, is a Uto-Aztecan language with more than 12,000 speakers, most of whom live in central and southern Arizona and northern Sonora.

Choctaw has 11,000 speakers. One of the Muskogean language family, like Seminole and AlabamaKeres has 11,000 speakers. Alanguage isolate, the Keres are the largest of the Pueblo nations. The Keres pueblo of Acoma is the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. Zuni has 10,000 speakers. Zuni is a language isolate mostly spoken in a single pueblo, Zuni, the largest in the U.S. Ojibwe has 7,000 speakers (about 55,000 including speakers in Canada). The Algonquian language family includes populous languages like Cree in Canada.

Many other languages have been spoken within the current borders of the United States. The following is a list of 28 language families(groups of demonstrably related languages) indigenous to the territory of the continental United States.

In addition to the above list of families, there are many languages in the United States that are sufficiently well-known to attempt to classify but which have not been shown to be related to any other language in the world. These 25 language isolates are listed below. With further study, some of these will likely prove to be related to each other or to one of the established families. There are also larger and more contentious proposals such as Penutian and Hokan.

Since the languages in the Americas have a history stretching for about 17,000 to 12,000 years, current knowledge of American languages is limited. There are doubtless a number of languages that were spoken in the United States that are missing from historical record.

Native American sign languages

A sign-language trade pidgin, known as Plains Indian Sign Language or Plains Standard, arose among the Plains Indians. Each signing nation had a separate signed version of their oral language, that was used by the hearing, and these were not mutually intelligible. Plains Standard was used to communicate between these nations. It seems to have started in Texas and then spread north, through the Great Plains, as far as British Columbia. There are still a few users today, especially among the CrowCheyenne, andArapaho. Unlike other sign languages developed by hearing people, it shares the spatial grammar of deaf sign languages.

Austronesian languages


Hawaiian is an official state language of Hawaii as prescribed in the Constitution of Hawaii. Hawaiian has 1,000 native speakers. Formerly considered critically endangered, Hawaiian is showing signs of language renaissance. The recent trend is based on new Hawaiian language immersion programs of the Hawaii State Department of Education and the University of Hawaii, as well as efforts by the Hawaii State Legislature and county governments to preserve Hawaiian place names. In 1993, about 8,000 could speak and understand it; today estimates range up to 27,000. Hawaiian is related to the Māori language spoken by around 150,000 New Zealanders and Cook Islanders as well as the Tahitian language which is spoken by another 120,000 people of Tahiti.


Samoan is an official territorial language of American Samoa. Samoans make up 90% of the population, and most people are bilingual.


Chamorro is co-official in the Mariana Islands, both in the territory of Guam and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In Guam, the Chamorro people make up about 60% of the population.


Carolinian is also co-official in the Northern Marianas, where only 14% of people speak English at home.

Main languages

trash can in Seattle labeled in four languages: EnglishChinese (),Vietnamese (should be rác), and Spanish.Tagalog also uses the Spanish word.

Some of the first European languages to be spoken in the U.S. are English, DutchGerman,French, and Spanish.

From the mid-19th century on, the nation had large numbers of immigrants who spoke little or no English, and throughout the country state laws, constitutions, and legislative proceedings appeared in the languages of politically important immigrant groups. There have been bilingual schools and local newspapers in such languages as GermanHungarian,IrishItalianNorwegianGreekPolishSwedishRomanianCzechJapaneseYiddish,HebrewLithuanianWelshCantoneseBulgarianDutchPortuguese and others, despite opposing English-only laws that, for example, illegalized church services, telephone conversations, and even conversations in the street or on railway platforms in any language other than English, until the first of these laws was ruled unconstitutional in 1923 (Meyer v. Nebraska).

Currently, Asian languages account for the majority of languages spoken in immigrant communities: Korean, the varieties of Chinese, and various Indian or South Asian languages like PunjabiHindi/UrduKannadaGujaratiMarathiBengaliTamilTelugu and Malayalam,ArabicVietnameseTagalogPersian, and others.

From the 1920s to the early 1950s, a dozen radio stations broadcast in immigrant languages (notably Yiddish for European Jewish immigrants in the Eastern seaboard), but was curtailed by the Great Depression (1930s), then the US government during World War II and came to an end in the late 1940s. Global radio waves on shortwave radio can broadcast in any language and today the internet offers a wide variety of media streamlinked in every major language to the USA and everywhere.[citation needed]

Typically, immigrant languages tend to be lost through assimilation within two or three generations, though there are some groups such as the Cajuns (French), Pennsylvania Dutch (German) in a state where large numbers of people were heard to speak it before the 1950s, and the original settlers of the Southwest (Spanish) who have maintained their languages for centuries.


Main article: American English

English language distribution in the United States.

English was inherited from British colonization, and it is spoken by the majority of the population. It serves as the de facto official language, the language in which government business is carried out. According to the US Census Bureau 80.3% spoke only English at Home and 24,252,429 of U.S. residents do not speak English “well” or “very well”.[31]

American English is different from British English in terms of spelling (a classic example being the dropped “u” in words such as color/colour), grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and slang usage. The differences are not usually a barrier to effective communication between an American English and a British English speaker, but there are certainly enough differences to cause occasional misunderstandings, usually surrounding slang or region dialect differences.[citation needed]

Some states, like California, have amended their constitutions to make English the only official language, but in practice, this only means that official government documents must at least be in English, and does not mean that they should be exclusively available only in English. For example, the standard California Class C driver’s license examination is available in 32 different languages.[32]


Spanish language distribution in the United States.

Spanish was also inherited from colonization and is sanctioned as official in Puerto Rico. Spanish is also taught in various regions as a second language, especially in areas with large Hispanic populations such as the Southwestern United States along the border with Mexico, as well as Florida, parts of California, the District of ColumbiaIllinoisNew Jersey, and New York. In Hispanic communities across the country, bilingual signs in both Spanish and English may be quite common. Furthermore, numerous neighborhoods exist (such asWashington Heights in New York City or Little Havana in Miami) in which entire city blocks will have only Spanish language signs and Spanish-speaking people.

In addition to Spanish-speaking Hispanic populations, younger generations of non-Hispanics in the United States seem to be learning Spanish in larger numbers due to the growing Hispanic population and increasing popularity of Latin American movies and music performed in the Spanish language. A 2007 American Community Survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau, showed that Spanish is the primary language spoken at home by over 34 million people aged 5 or older,[8] making the United States the world’s fifth-largest Spanish-speaking community, outnumbered only by MexicoSpainColombia, and Argentina.[33][34]

Spanglish is a code-switching variant of Spanish and English and is spoken in areas with large bilingual populations of Spanish and English speakers, such as along the Mexico – United States border (CaliforniaArizonaNew Mexico, and Texas), Florida, and New York City.


French language distribution in the United States. Counties and parishes marked in yellow are those where 6% to 12% of the population speak French at home; brown, 12% to 18%; red, over 18%. Cajun French and French-based creole languages are not included even though the Creole dialects are spoken throughout the U.S. and taught in many U.S. schools.

French, the fourth most-common language, is spoken mainly by the Louisiana Creole, native FrenchCajunHaitian, and French-Canadian populations. It is widely spoken inMaineNew Hampshire, and in Louisiana.

Three varieties of French developed within what is now the United States in colonial times: Louisiana FrenchMissouri French, and New England French (essentially a variant of Canadian French).[35] French is the second de facto language in the states ofLouisiana (where the French dialect of Cajun predominates) and Maine. The largest French-speaking communities in the United States reside in Northeast Maine;Hollywood and MiamiFloridaNew York City;[citation needed] certain areas of rural Louisiana; and small minorities in Vermont and New Hampshire. Many of the New England communities are connected to the dialect found across the border in Quebec or New Brunswick. More than 13 million Americans possess primary French heritage, but only 1.6 million speak that language at home.


Arabic is spoken by immigrants from the Middle East as well as many Muslim Americans. The highest concentrations of native Arabic speakers reside in heavily urban areas like ChicagoNew York City, and Los AngelesDetroit and the surrounding areas of Michigan boast a significant Arabic-speaking population including many Arab Christians of LebaneseSyrian, and Palestinian descent.

Arabic is used for religious purposes by Muslim Americans and by some Arab Christians (notably Catholics of the Melkite and Maronite Churches as well as Rum Orthodox, i.e. Antiochian Orthodox Christians). A significant number of educated Arab professionals who immigrate often already know English quite well, as it is widely used in the Middle East. Lebanese immigrants also have a broader understanding of French as do many Arabic-speaking immigrants from North Africa.


Chinese, mostly of the Cantonese variety, is the third most-spoken language in the United States, almost completely spoken withinChinese American populations and by immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, especially in California.[36] Many young Americans not of Chinese descent have become interested in learning the language, specifically Mandarin, the official spoken language in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. Over 2 million Americans speak some variety of Chinese, with the Mandarin varietybecoming increasingly more prevalent due to the opening up of the PRC.[36]

In New York City at least, although Mandarin is spoken as a native language among only 10% of Chinese speakers, it is used as a secondary dialect among the greatest number of them and is on its way to replace Cantonese as their lingua franca.[37]


Dutch language distribution in the United States.

There has been a Dutch presence in America since 1602, when the government of theRepublic of the Seven United Netherlands chartered the Dutch East India Company(Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) with the mission of exploring for a passage to the Indies and claiming any uncharted territories for the Dutch republic. In 1664, English troops under the command of the Duke of York (later James II of England) attacked the New Netherland colony. Being greatly outnumbered, director general Peter Stuyvesantsurrendered New Amsterdam, with Fort Orange following soon. New Amsterdam was renamed New YorkFort Orange was renamed Fort Albany. Dutch city names can still be found in New York’s neighbourhoods. Harlem is Haarlem, Staten Island is Staten Eiland andBrooklyn refers to Breukelen.

Dutch was still spoken in many parts of New York at the time of the Revolution. For example, Alexander Hamilton‘s wife Eliza Hamilton attended a Dutch-language church during their marriage.

Martin Van Buren, the first President born in the United States following its independence, spoke Dutch as his native language, making him the only President whose first language was not English.

In a 1990 demographic consensus, 3% of surveyed citizens claimed descent from Dutch settlers. Modern estimates place the Dutch American population at 5 million, lagging just a bit behind Scottish Americans and Swedish Americans.

Notable Dutch Americans include the Roosevelts (Theodore RooseveltFranklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt), Marlon BrandoThomas Alva EdisonMartin Van Buren and the Vanderbilts. The Roosevelts are direct descendants of Dutch settlers of theNew Netherlands colony in the 17th century.

Around 150,000 people in the United States still speak the Dutch language at home today. They are concentrated mainly in California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, New York and Michigan (i.e. the city of Holland),[38] Tennessee[better source needed], Miami[better source needed], Houston[better source needed], and Chicago.[better source needed] The Dutch language is studied as a novelty in mostly Dutch communities of Pella, Iowa, and San Joaquin County, California has a renowned Dutch and Frisian settlement history since the 1840s.[citation needed]

A vernacular dialect of Dutch, known as Jersey Dutch was spoken by a significant number of people in the New Jersey area between the start of the 17th century to the mid-20th century. With the beginning of the 20th century, usage of the language became restricted to internal family circles, with an ever-growing number of people abandoning the language in favor of English. It suffered gradual decline throughout the 20th century, and it ultimately dissipated from casual usage.


Finnish language distribution in the United States.

The first Finnish settlers in America were amongst the settlers who came from Sweden and Finland to New Sweden colony. Most colonists were Finnish. However, the Finnish language was not preserved as well among subsequent generations as Swedish.

Shortly after the Civil War, many Finnish citizens immigrated to the United States, mainly in rural areas of the Midwest (and more specifically in Michigan‘s Upper Peninsula). Hancock, Michigan, as of 2005, still incorporates bi-lingual street signs written in both English and Finnish.[39] Americans of Finnish origin yield at 800,000 individuals, though only 39,770 speak the language at home.[40] There is a distinctive dialect of English to be found in the Upper Peninsula, known as Yooper. Yuper often has a Finnish cadence and uses Finnish sentence structure with modified English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish vocabulary. Notable Finnish Americans include Gus Hall, U.S. Communist Party leader,Renny Harlin, film director, and the Canadian-born actress Pamela Anderson. Another Finnish community in the United States is found in Lake Worth, Florida, north of Miami.


See also: Hutterite GermanTexas GermanPennsylvania Dutchified EnglishPlautdietsch.

German was a widely spoken language in some of the colonies, especially Pennsylvania, where a number of German-speaking religious minorities settled to escape persecution in Europe. Dutch, Swedish, and Scottish Gaelic all became less common than German after the American Revolution. Another wave of settlement occurred when Germans fleeing the failure of 19th Century German revolutions emigrated to the United States. Large numbers of Germans settled throughout the U.S., especially in the cities. Neighborhoods in many cities were German-speaking. German farmers took up farming around the country, including the Texas Hill Country, at this time. German was widely spoken until the United States entered World War I. Numerous local German language newspapers and periodicals existed.

German language distribution in the United States.

In the early twentieth century, German was the most widely studied foreign language in the United States, and prior to World War I, more than 6%[citation needed] of American school-children received their primary education exclusively in German, though some of these Germans came from areas outside of Germany proper. Currently, more than 49 million Americans claim German ancestry, the largest self-described ethnic group in the U.S., but less than 4% of them speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2005American Community Survey.[41] The Amish speak a dialect of German known asPennsylvania German. One reason for this decline of German language was the perception during both World Wars that speaking the language of the enemy was unpatriotic; foreign language instruction was banned in places during the First World War. Unlike earlier waves, they were more concentrated in cities, and integrated quickly.

There is a myth (known as the Muhlenberg Vote) that German was to be the official language of the U.S., but this is inaccurate and based on a failed early attempt to have government documents translated into German.[42] The myth also extends to German being the second official language of Pennsylvania; however, Pennsylvania has no official language. Although more than 49 million Americans claim they have German ancestors, only 1.38 million Americans speak German at home. Many of these people are either Amish and Mennonites or Germans having newly immigrated (e.g. for professional reasons).


Russian language distribution in the United States.

The Russian language is frequently spoken in areas of AlaskaLos AngelesSeattle,SpokaneMiamiSan FranciscoNew York CityPhiladelphia, Woodburn, Oregon, andChicago. The Russian-American Company used to own Alaska Territory until selling it after the Crimean War. Russian had always been limited, especially after the assassination of theRomanov dynasty of tsars. Starting in the 1970s and continuing until the mid 1990s, many people from the Soviet Union and later its constituent republics such as RussiaUkraine,Belarus, and Uzbekistan have immigrated to the United States, increasing the language’s usage in America.

The largest Russian-speaking neighborhoods in the United States are found in Queens,Brooklyn, and Staten Island in New York City (specifically the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn), parts of Los Angeles, particularly West Los Angeles and West Hollywood, parts of Philadelphia, particularly the Far Northeast and, parts of Miami like Sunny Isles Beach.

Slavic Voice of America media group servers Russian-speaking Americans out of Dallas, TX.


Modern Hebrew is used by some immigrants from Israel and Eastern Europe. Liturgical Hebrew is used as a religious or liturgical language by many of the United States’ approximately 7 million Jews.


Like the Tagalogs, the Ilocanos are an Austronesian stock which came from the Philippines. They were the first Filipinos to migrate en masse to the United States. They first entered the State of Hawai’i and worked there in the vast plantations.

As they did in the Philippine provinces of Northern Luzon and Mindanao, they quickly gained importance in the areas where they settled. Thus, the state of Hawai’i became no less different from the Philippines in terms of percentage of Ilocano speakers.

Like TagalogIlocano is also being taught in universities where most of the Filipinos reside.


Up to 37 million Americans have Irish ancestry, many of whose ancestors would have spoken Irish. According to the 2000 census, 25,661 people speak Irish at home.[43] As of 2008 it was the 76th most spoken language in the USA, with 22,279 speakers.[44]


Current distribution of the Italian language in the United States.

The Italian language and its various dialects has been widely spoken in the United States for more than one hundred years, primarily due to large-scale immigration from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.

In addition to Standard Italian learned by most people today, there has been a strong representation of the dialects and languages of Southern Italy amongst the immigrant population (Sicilian and Neapolitan in particular). As of 2000, though 15,638,348 American citizens report themselves as Italian Americans, only 1,008,370 of these report speaking the Italian language at home (0.384% of the population).

Khmer (Cambodian)

Between 1981–1985 about 150,000 Cambodians resettled in the United States.[45] Before 1975 very few Cambodians came to the United States. Those who did were children of upper-class families sent abroad to attend school. After the fall of Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, some Cambodians managed to escape. In 2000 the Census Bureau reported that there were approximately 172,000 Cambodians living in the United States, making up about 1.8 percent of the Asian population.[46] The states with the most Khmer speakers are California, Massachusetts, Washington, Pennsylvania and Texas.


The Polish language is very common in the Chicago metropolitan area. Chicago’s largest white ethnic groups are those of Polish descent. The Polish people and the Polish language in Chicago have been very prevalent in the early years of the city, as well as the progression and economical and social development of Chicago. Poles in Chicago make up one of the largest ethnically Polish population (650 000 people) in the world comparable to the city of Wrocław, the fourth largest city in Poland. That makes it one of the most important centres of Polonia and the Polish language in the United States, a fact that the city celebrates every Labor Day weekend at the Taste of Polonia Festival in Jefferson Park.[47]


The first Portuguese speakers in America were Jews who had fled the Inquisition; they founded the first Jewish communities, two of which stiil exist: Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. However, by the end of the 18th century the use of Portuguese had been replaced by English. In the late 19th century, many Portuguese, mainly Azoreans andMadeirans, immigrated to the United States, establishing in cities like Providence, Rhode IslandNew Bedford, Massachusetts, andSanta Cruz, California. Many of them also moved to Hawaii during its independence.

In the mid-late 20th century there was another surge of Portuguese immigration in America, mainly in the Northeast (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts). Many Portuguese Americans may include descendants of Portuguese settlers born in Africa (likeAngolaCape Verde, and Mozambique) and Asia (mostly Macau). There were around 1 million Portuguese Americans in the United States by the year 2000. Portuguese (European Portuguese) has been spoken in the United States by small communities of immigrants, mainly in the metropolitan New York City area, like Newark, New Jersey. The Portuguese language is also spoken widely by Brazilian immigrants, established mainly in MiamiNew York City and Boston. (Brazilian Portuguese)

[edit]Scottish Gaelic

In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of Scots from Scotland, and Scots-Irish from the north of Ireland arrived in the American colonies. Today, an estimated 20 million Americans are of Scottish ancestry. The province of Nova ScotiaCanada was the main concentration of Scottish Gaelic speakers in North America (Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland). According to the 2000 census, 1,119 people speak Scottish Gaelic at home.[48]


Swedish language distribution in the United States.

There has been a Swedish presence in America since the New Sweden colony came into existence in March 1638.

Widespread diaspora of Swedish immigration did not occur until the latter half of the 19th century, bringing in a total of a million Swedes. No other country had a higher percentage of its people leave for the United States except Ireland and Norway. At the beginning of the 20th century, Minnesota had the highest ethnic Swedish population in the world after the city of Stockholm.

3.7% of US residents claim descent from Scandinavian ancestors, amounting to roughly 11-12 million people. According to SIL’s Ethnologue, over half a million ethnic Swedes still speak the language, though according to the 2000 census only 67,655 speak it at home.[49]Cultural assimilation has contributed to the gradual and steady decline of the language in the US. After the independence of the US from the Kingdom of Great Britain, the government encouraged colonists to adopt the English language as a common medium of communication, and in some cases, imposed it upon them. Subsequent generations of Swedish Americans received education in English and spoke it as their first language. Lutheran churches scattered across the Midwest started abandoning Swedish in favor of English as their language of worship. Swedish newspapers and publications alike slowly faded away.

There are sizable Swedish communities in Minnesota, Ohio, Maryland, Philadelphia and Delaware, along with small isolated pockets in Pennsylvania, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, and New York. Chicago once contained a large Swedish enclave called Andersonville on the city’s north side.

John Morton, the person who cast the decisive vote leading to Pennsylvania’s support for the United States Declaration of Independence, was of Finnish descent. Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden in the 18th century.


Tagalog language distribution in the United States.

Tagalog speakers were already present in the United States as early as the late sixteenth century as sailors contracted by the Spanish colonial government. In the eighteenth century, they established settlements in Louisiana, such as Saint Malo.

After the American annexation of the Philippines, the number of Tagalog speakers steadily increased, as Filipinos began to migrate as students or contract laborers. Their numbers, however, decreased upon Philippine independence, as many Filipinos were repatriated.

Today, Tagalog, together with its standardized form Filipino, is spoken by over a millionFilipino Americans, and is promoted by Filipino American civic organizations and Philippine consulates. Taglish, a form of code-switching between Tagalog and English, is also spoken by a number of Filipino Americans.

As the Filipinos became the second fastest growing Asian population in the United States, Tagalog easily became the second most spoken Asian language in the continent. Today, Tagalog is being majored in some universities where a significant number of Filipinos exist. Some of these schools include the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of California.

As Tagalog is the basis of Filipino, most of all the Filipinos living in the United States are proficient in Tagalog.


Welsh language distribution in the United States.

Up to two million Americans are thought to have Welsh ancestry. However, there is very littleWelsh being used commonly in the USA. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 2,649 people speak Welsh at home.[50] Some place names, such as Bryn Mawr in Chicago and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (English: Big Hill) are Welsh. Several towns in Pennsylvania, mostly in the Welsh Tract, have Welsh namesakes, including UwchlanBala CynwydGwynedd, andTredyffrin.


Yiddish has a much longer history in the United States than Hebrew.[51] It has been present since at least the late 19th century and continues to have roughly 179,000 speakers as of the 2000 census. Though they came from varying geographic backgrounds and nuanced approaches to worship, immigrant Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia were often united under a common understanding of the Yiddish language once they settled in America, and at one point dozens of publications were available in most East Coast cities. Though it has declined by quite a bit since the end of WWII, it has by no means disappeared. Many Israeli immigrants and expatriates have at least some understanding of the language in addition to Hebrew, and many of the descendants of the great migration of Ashkenazi Jews of the past century pepper their mostly English vocabulary with some loan words. Furthermore, it is definitely a lingua franca alive and well among Orthodox Jewry, particularly in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.[52][53]

New American languages, dialects, and creoles

Several languages have developed on American soil, including creoles and sign languages.

[edit]African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics, is a variety of English spoken by many African Americans, in both rural and urban areas. Not all African Americans speak AAVE and many European Americans do. Indeed, it is generally accepted that Southern American English is part of the same continuum as AAVE.

There is considerable debate among non-linguists as to whether the word “dialect” is appropriate to describe it. However, there is general agreement among linguists and many African Americans that AAVE is part of a historical continuum between creoles such as Gullah and the language brought by English colonists.

Some educators view AAVE as exerting a negative influence on the learning of Proper and Standard English, as numerous AAVE rules differ from the rules of Standard English. Other educators, however, propose that Standard English should be taught as a “second dialect” in areas where AAVE is a strong part of local tradition.

Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon

Chinuk Wawa (or Chinook Jargon) is a Creole language of 700-800 words of French, English, Cree and other Native origins. It is the old trade language of the Pacific Northwest. It was used extensively among both European and Native peoples of the old Oregon Territory, even used in place of English at home for many families. It is estimated that around 250,000 people spoke it at its peak and it was last used extensively in Seattle.


Gullah, an English-African creole language spoken on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, retains strong influences of West African languages. The language is sometimes referred to as “Geechee”.

Hawai’i Creole English

Hawaiian Pidgin, more accurately known as Hawai’i Creole English, is commonly used by locals and is considered an unofficial language of the state. This not to be confused with Hawaiian English which is standard American English with Hawaiian words.

Outer Banks languages

In the islands of the Outer Banks off North Carolina, several unique English dialects have developed. This is evident on Harkers Islandand Ocracoke Island.

Pennsylvania Dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch is a language spoken mainly in Pennsylvania. It evolved from the German dialect brought over to America by thePennsylvania Dutch people (the Amish) before 1800.

Texas Silesian

Texas Silesian (Silesian: teksasko gwara) is a language used by Texas Silesians in American settlements from 1852 to the present.

[edit]Tangier Islander

Another dialectal isolate is that spoken on Tangier IslandVirginia located in the Chesapeake bay. The dialect is partially derived from English as spoken by English pre-Revolutionary settlers, and partially from the present-day Middle-Atlantic American dialect of English. It also contains some words from the Cornish Language, the Celtic language spoken in Cornwall in southwest England.[citation needed]

Chicano English

A mixture of the Spanish and American English languages spoken by many Hispanics in urban areas and predominantly Latino communities. See also Chicano English and New Mexican Spanish for Mexican-American dialects of the Southwest.

Sign languages

Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language
 is now extinct. Along with French Sign Language, it was one of two main contributors to American Sign Language.[edit]Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the native language of a number of Deaf and hearing people in America. While some sources have stated that ASL is the second most frequently used non-English language in the US, following Spanish,[54] recent scholarship has pointed out that most of these estimates are based on numbers conflating deafness with ASL use, and that the last actual study of this (in 1972) seems to indicate an upper bound of 500,000 ASL speakers at the time.[16]

Unlike Signed English, ASL is a natural language in its own right, not a manual representation of English.[55]

Black American Sign Language

Black American Sign Language (BASL) developed in the southeastern US, where separate residential schools were maintained for white and black deaf children. BASL shares much of the same vocabulary and grammatical structure as ASL.[54][56]

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language (named after Hawaiian Pidgin English, but not itself a pidgin) is moribund.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 21, 2012

Confessions of a conference interpreter

no caption titleI would love to start this article with the words “Hi, my name’s Michelle and I’m a conference interpreter,” but I’m afraid that would prompt readers to want to start patting me on the back consolingly and proffering tissues. Although, come to think of it, maybe adopting a “True Confessions” tone in this article is not such a bad idea, since it would fit quite nicely with the topic I plan to address: professional identity as seen by a conference interpreter.

Many readers will recognise this topic as being related to the theme chosen forInterpretAmerica’s recent summit, which I used as inspiration. But instead of tackling the question of professional identity by looking at what a conference interpreter is, I have decided that it would be more interesting to address the question the other way around, and look primarily at what a conference interpreter is not– or at least what I am not.

Only once I’ve come clean about all of the things I cannot do will I look at what it is exactly that I do do for a living. After this, I will attempt to draw some conclusions for readers to take home (hopefully this promise of a take-home message will encourage you to stick around until the end!).

What I am not

I am not a language teacher. Strangely enough, my passion for languages and my love of teaching have not come together to make me a good language teacher. I know, because I have been fortunate enough to have had many an excellent teacher over the years, and I can’t do what they do. I have never been able to come up with engaging, creative ways to explain the intricacies of a foreign language to learners.

Also, I simply don’t have the oodles of patience that a language teacher needs. I just have to look at the earnest, eyes-not-rolling-to-the-heavens face of my Portuguese teacher, as she happily explains to my thick self (for what is probably the seventeenth time) the difference between futuro do conjuntivo and infinitivo pessoal and why I can’t just use fizermos and fazermos interchangeably, to know that I can’t do that.For a language teacher, patience is not a virtue, it’s a survival tactic.

I am not a community interpreter. This is because, quite frankly, I’m quite sure no courtroom or hospital would have me. I am one of those conference interpreters with one “active” language (English) and several “passive” languages (French, German, Spanish, Dutch, and maybe even Portuguese one day). I can only interpret into English from all of the other languages I speak, but not the other way around. A fat lot of use that is to anyone in a communicative situation requiring someone to work both ways between two languages, as is the case in community interpreting.

Besides, I don’t have the necessary training or certification to do this kind of specialised work. Certification is one of the issues that was discussed at the InterpretAmerica summit, and it’s something I personally feel quite strongly about. There are different types of interpreting, and so there should ideally be different types of formal training and certification for each. I was fortunate enough to teach on a community interpreting course for some seasons several years back (there are some skills that overlap, relating to memory, consecutive note-taking, language acquisition in specialised fields, etc.), and I saw all too well that the two professions are distinct – and that I wasn’t cut out for the other one.

I am not a translator. I’m afraid to say missed that boat – or should I say, I was on it once, but then I disembarked twelve years ago to pursue a career in interpreting, and when I tried to get back on recently, I found the ship had weighed anchor and left the harbour!

As I see it, changes in the translation industry, largely due to globalization and in particular to the advent of CAT tools, have completely revolutionized the translation landscape in the decade or so that I’ve been away. If I were to want to be a full-time professional translator today, I would have to completely retrain in order to do so. I know this, because I have a real live professional translator in my home, so I have first-hand insight into what the job entails these days.

My better half happily spends his days mind-melding with his TMs, his TagEditors, his MultiTerms and whatever that other thing is called, while I just look over his shoulder in wonder. From time to time, he generously offers to initiate me into the wonderful world of Trados, Transit, Across, and all the other interestingly-named tools that today’s translators can’t live without, but I just shrug sheepishly and wonder how it all happened so fast.

I do still produce the occasional translation from time to time, but they tend to be for customers who are still stuck back in the 20th century like me – the ones who don’t demand clean and unclean versions of the file and who seem to agree that “sometime next week” is a reasonable delivery deadline. I enjoy the intellectual rigor required to produce translations, but I can’t keep up with the professionals of today.

I am not an interpreting researcher. But how I wish I was! One thing is being able to do the job, and another thing is understanding why and how it gets done. Thanks to the excellent work of interpreting researchers, we are steadily gaining insights into this. In my next life, I will dedicate myself to research and love every minute of it. In this life, I will content myself with reading the results of others’ investigative pursuits.

I am not a proofreader/editor. Wait a minute – yes, I am! This is actually one side job that I have found to be a perfect complement to working in the booth.

In the booth, you only get one crack at it (or as Franz Pöchhacker puts it, you have the opportunity to produce “a first and final rendition in another language … on the basis of a one-time presentation of an utterance in a source language”[1]). As a result, you often end the day feeling like it wasn’t quite right, or that at least if you’d had a second chance, you would have done better (at least, I do).

When I am proofreading or editing texts written by others, on the other hand, I can give myself two, three, or as many cracks at it as I want (I’ve already said I don’t work for customers with tight deadlines). I can reread and rework a text until I think it sounds just right. This is the perfect antidote to that end-of-day, not-quite-good-enough feeling I described above, not to mention the ideal escape valve for the closet perfectionist in me (the one I had to suppress in order to survive as a conference interpreter).

What I do do

If you were to ask my six-year-old son what his mommy does for a living, he would probably say that a few times a month, I travel to a different city to go work in a meeting. He’d say I spend most of the day in a glassed-in booth listening through a headset and talking into a microphone. He’d say I help people who don’t speak the same language talk to each other about stuff. And you know, that pretty much sums it up, really. (If you were to ask my three-year-old daughter what her mommy does for a living, she would probably say I fly in airplanes and sleep in hotels a lot – also true.)

Of course, I could fill in the details for you, but there are already a number of very good online resources that do precisely that. For example, there are AIIC’s articles A day in the life of an interpreter and How we work, which offer a pretty accurate idea of what we conference interpreters do for a living.

Why and how I do it

So, by this point I have already confessed that I am not very creative or excessively patient. I have also admitted that I am not actively bilingual (don’t let my willingness to chitchat in several different languages fool you – I’m no good for interpreting into anything but English!). I am also not very high-tech (again, the BlackBerry, blog, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are just a smokescreen to hide my inner Luddite). What is left over that makes me a good conference interpreter?

A good place to start might be my insatiable curiosity (the thing that makes me read newspapers back to front and back again, thereby drawing curious stares from fellow travelers in airports). And then there’s the fact that I thrive on stress and the resulting adrenaline rush (this always comes in handy when the going gets tough in the booth). I also love new challenges (although I tend to get bored quickly, so it’s a good thing I have to do a different meeting every week). I’m definitely a team player (indispensable in the booth, where you are always working with one or more colleagues, but equally valuable in the dog-eat-dog interpreting market, where sticking together is often the only way to survive professionally). Oh, and I am a stickler forquality and high standards (ask my interpreting students and they will assure you that I can wax very boring on this particular topic).

Bringing it all back home

This brings me to my take-home message for today. After all the time I have spent talking here about what I am and what I am not, you might think that my message will have something to do with what divides the different language professions. On the contrary: if anything, I feel that we have to focus on what unites us! Our different skill sets, aptitudes and specialisations should not be used as a pretext to divide and conquer.

The different groups of language professionals probably have much more in common than we realize: our love of languages, a passion for what we do, and above all, our commitment to quality and high standards. Deep down, we must also all be team players, because otherwise we wouldn’t have created so many different associations and groupings to defend our profession! The list is virtually endless. A quick check of the blogroll on Bootheando reveals no less than 36 different translation and interpreting associations – and that’s just a selection of what’s out there. The objectives of our associations, whatever form they may take, are generally the same:to promote our profession, to ensure high quality and working standards, and to support each other mutually as professionals.

But before I start getting all weepy and you have to go digging for the Kleenex again, let me give you that take-home message: this solidarity is not to be taken for granted, nor is it to be neglected. We language professionals have to continue to stick together, and we have to continue to work to achieve our common goals. Our professional future depends on it.

Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 20, 2012

Language translation to overcome the language barrier!

Knowledge of multiple languages puts you at the forefront of this global movement. In today’s globalized economy, with many companies going global to increase their business, they have found it a necessity to get their product documents translated. As a result, the demand for the Language Translation has gone up sharply. To capitalize on this demand, many translation companies have started offering the translation services. Translators of foreign languages are in higher demand than ever, helping to shepherd individuals and businesses through an increasingly interconnected world. Whether working for a translation agency or self-employed, these professionals ensure that communication flows smoothly between people who wouldn’t normally be able to communicate.

A professional Language Translator switch written texts from one language into another, making sure that the translated version conforms to the grammar and style rules of the target language. This means that translators must possess good writing and editing skills plus the ability to analyze written materials. As new technology springing up day by day, it has introduced a lot of changes in the way translation work. Translation software is one of the great examples that are cheaper and faster than manual, or human, translation. Both free and priced translation software are widely available online or at computer and electronics stores. However, you can’t ignore that going with the process of business document translation is very risky.

A little mistake or a wrong translation can cause a big confusion. Words often have more than one meaning and this is especially true in idiomatic or colloquial phrases. Computer software is notoriously poor at understanding the sense of a word from its context. Many online translation search engines may translate text, but unlike a human translator, they do not have the ability to accommodate for cultural expressions, slang, and words that don’t have a literal translation.Sometime it is necessary to speak through Language Interpreters for example, during an international business conference. Interpreters are trained professionals in specific languages, meaning they can ensure communication between sides is as clear as possible .Having an interpreter allows you to speak in your native language, ensuring you express yourself succinctly.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 19, 2012

Funny but Costly Localization Mistakes

You want to increase your market share, profits, and presence, so you decide to expand into a new market. Your team spends an incredible amount of time and money determining which market to enter. Your brand is molded to fit into your prospective market while maintaining its integrity, and the research backs that it is relevant, appropriate, and remarkable.

Now it’s time to localize it. Manuals, advertising, websites, campaigns, portfolios, labels, collateral, software—all need to be reproduced in your target market’s language, as well as for your target market’s culture.

Over the last half century we have seen an abundance of corporations, driven by costs and enabled by advancing technologies, take their products global, only to make huge mistakes that are costly in terms of revenue, brand, and opportunity. Many of those mistakes take place in the mad rush to localize and translate materials.

In this article we will look at several cases where corporations failed to take advantage of translation, went to market with careless translations, or made cultural mistakes in the translations that were deemed offensive to their prospective consumers.


It is commonly believed that, due to the popularity of English as a second language, products can succeed in foreign language markets without translation. Though this level of ignorance is less frequent today in terms of consumer products, it still resonates in the business world. We have learned from corporations that have come before us that though buyers may be able to speak your language, they’ll trust your product more if it speaks theirs—and trust is a virtue that you can take to the bank.

Funny but Costly Localization MistakesTake, for instance, Apple’s entrance into the Japanese market. In an effort to beat IBM to the market, they failed to adapt their computers to Japanese requirements or to translate their user manual into Japanese. Apple’s “first-to-market” advantage and market share were quickly lost to IBM, which took a more customized approach and did their homework.

Sometimes your failure to translate can even produce legal ramifications. SC Johnson was fined for “exporting nine pesticides without translating usage instructions into the importing countries’ principal languages.”

But probably one of the most widespread lack-of-translation mistakes is in brand names.

When Starbucks Coffee introduced one of their most popular holiday lattes, the Gingerbread Latte, to the German market, it should have been an easy win. Gingerbread is an incredibly popular holiday treat in Germany; in fact, the tradition of building gingerbread houses was brought to North America by the Germans. However, to the surprise of many Starbucks stakeholders, their latte was hugely unpopular. The reason: Starbucks failed to translate “gingerbread” into German. The following winter season they began selling the Lebkuchen Latte, and sales flourished.

Funny but Costly Localization MistakesOh, but it gets better. “Latte” itself is a rather risqué term in Germany. The Italian word means milk, and in English it has become synonymous with the coffee-basedbeverage. In German, the traditional meaning of “latte” is pole, but in slang it is synonymous with a male erection. To the amusement of Germans, Starbucks has continued to sell their lattes without translation.

There are numerous examples of brand names that haven’t played well overseas: Vicks Cough Drops had to change their name to Wicks in the German market because the pronunciation was too close to a vulgar term for sexual penetration; Puffs brand tissues didn’t play well in the German market either, where “puff” is a colloquialism for a brothel, nor in the British market where “puff” sounds similar to a coarse term for homosexuals.

And sometimes companies, against all odds, still get it wrong. Ford, with a fully staffed subsidiary in Germany, introduced the Probe, which in German translates to “test” or “rehearsal.” Consumers believed they were purchasing a test car, rather than a real one (David A. Ricks. Blunders in International Business (Kindle Location 411). Kindle Edition.).

We’ve seen this numerous times in advertising on our side of the pond as well. Just consider brands like Nads hair remover and Wang Computers. Or how about the IKEA FARTFULL work bench? Of course our Wii and Fanny Packs have equally delighted the British.

There are a number of popular brands that won’t be coming to the United States anytime soon without a name overhaul. XXXX (Four X) beer from Australia intended to export to the United States until they realized that we already had a well-known product with a similar name. There are a number of Finnish items that won’t be found in the United States, including “Jussipussi” (a brand of bread rolls), “Koff” and “Siff” (beer), and “Super Piss” (a product for unfreezing car doors), as well as their ever popular supermarket chain, “KKK.”


Failure to translate a brand name when localizing it to your target audience is but one way to damage its acceptance. Another is by carelessly translating your brand, slogan, or advertising copy. The folks over at the Jolly Green Giant brand learned this the hard way when they discovered there name had been translated into Arabic for the Saudi Arabian market as the “Intimidating Green Ogre.”

Nike experienced a bit of embarrassment over a commercial in the United States that showed a number of people from various countries repeating their slogan “Just Do It.” They failed to verify that the words being spoken in each language were actually adequate translations. To the delight of many, including Nike’s competition, it was discovered that the Samburu tribesman was actually saying “I don’t want these, give me big shoes.”

Another great mistranslation example comes from a Parker Pens campaign in the Mexican market. Their slogan was “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”—well thought out considering their previous issues with leaky pens. However, when translating the slogan into Spanish, they mistakenly rendered “embarrass” as “embarazar.” Their new slogan splashed around Mexico was “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

Funny but Costly Localization MistakesMistranslations are classic examples of sloppy marketing, and a quick Internet search will produce a wealth of these treasures. Some of the greats include:

  • KFC’s “Finger-Lickin’ Good” translated into Chinese as “We’ll Eat Your Fingers Off”
  • Coors’ “Turn it Loose” translated into Spanish as “Suffer from Diarrhea”
    The American Dairy Association’s “Got Milk?” translated into Spanish as “Are you lactating?”
  • Pepsi’s “We bring you back to life” translated into Chinese as “We bring your ancestors back from the grave”
  • Braniff Airlines’ “Fly in leather” translated into Spanish as “Fly naked”
  • General Motors’ “Body by Fisher” translated in Belgium as “Corpse by Fisher”
  • Chicken-man Frank Perdue’s slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” translated into Spanish as “It takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate.”
  • Schweppes Tonic Water was translated into Italian as Schweppes Toilet Water.


We have witnessed a number of blunders relating to language when campaigns go global, but there are also those campaigns that are simply culturally inappropriate from the start. Take for example Fiat’s “Cinquecento” campaign in Spain. Part of the campaign included sending love letters to women to entice them to go check out the car at a dealership. Their attempts to attract the “independent, modern, working woman” actually left those women fearing for their safety, believing that they were being stalked and threatened. These personally addressed letters inviting the recipient to indulge in “a little adventure” after noticing “how [you] glanced interestedly in my direction” did not fare well with spouses either. (David A. Ricks. Blunders in International Business (Kindle Location 522). Kindle Edition.)

Lack of cultural intelligence occasionally makes its way into American advertising. Take for example New York’s Helmsley Palace Hotel. They printed an advertisement stating “In India it’s the Taj Mahal. In New York it’s the Helmsley Palace. Service and appointments fit for royalty – you – our guests.” Unfortunately for Leona Helmsley, guests with the means to occupy one of her rooms are worldly enough to know that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, not a hotel.

Stepping on a cultural taboo when taking your product global can be like stepping on a land mine for your campaign. Say, for example, you began airing commercials in Brazil that compared Brazilians to “Americans.” This would be incredibly confusing as Brazilians consider themselves to be Americans. Or, say a pharmaceutical company wanted to take a brand of birth control into Spain. Before starting the campaign, the company should be aware that 94% of the population practices some form of Catholicism, and these beliefs influence basic perceptions and behaviors. Or let’s say a leather goods company was looking to export goods globally. They would probably choose not to do this in India, where cows are considered sacred, or in Argentina, where beef is one of the largest exports and leather is abundant. Fast-food franchises going global would want to remember that Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.

Working for a translation company, we have seen several examples of cultural issues. Often these examples appear in the graphics associated with the translation project. We worked on a set of brochures for one corporation that was to be translated into Spanish for use in Mexico. The target clients were young to middle-aged women. The graphic, which the content was written for, contained an image of a blonde woman in a snowy landscape with sled dogs. Our client was notified of the potential issue of relatability, and the brochure was modified.

And sometimes the cultural issue isn’t in what you say, but how you say it. We were recently working on a project that involved copy from a doctor’s office to prospective patients for use in Latin America. The client wanted to copy to be very informal and conversational. One linguistic variation that can make text in Spanish more informal is substituting “su” for “tu.” However, in the Latin market it wouldn’t make sense for a professional to speak like this. Though the copy would be conversational, it would be inappropriate for the audience to make it so informal.

If you plan on marketing to a niche language group within the United States, say Latin Americans in Miami or Vietnamese in the Gulf Coast region, it is important to understand that the manner of speaking and cultural context will vary from that of Venezuela or Vietnam. For example, one project we did a couple of years ago involved brochures in Vietnamese for Louisiana in which the client requested that the American names be replaced with traditional Vietnamese names. However, our linguist came back and said that for this population, the Vietnamese take on American names, and that leaving the names on the brochures as they were would be more appropriate.


Funny but Costly Localization MistakesFor many companies, localizing their products or services for an intended market is like that last 200 meters of a marathon. They’ve spent an immense amount of time and money strategizing about where to go, when to go, and how to go. They’ve consulted experts and conductedmarket research. They’ve researched the legal, HR, and tax environments as well trade regulations within those countries. They’veinvested in the necessary technology to make their venture a success. Now, they’re on a deadline where every day that they aren’t advertising, promoting, and selling is a loss to their shareholders. This is why we see so many incredibly smart companies make painful errors.

There isn’t a single example given in this article that wouldn’t have been prevented with an ounce of due diligence. As the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Know your market, and if you don’t, find someone who does. A linguist who specializes in localizing marketing content shouldn’t just know your target market; they should be a part of your target market.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 18, 2012

Language Barriers Complicate Immigrants’ Medical Problems

“Devil, devil,” the man muttered.

Sabyasachi Kar, a doctor at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, shook his head in bewilderment. He was examining a Spanish-speaking patient with the help of a colleague who barely spoke the language, and he was getting nowhere.

“It was frustrating. I couldn’t do my job,” Kar recalled. Only the next day, when he returned with a bilingual colleague, did Kar learn the man had been saying he felt “debil,” or weak.

As immigrant communities swell around the country, hospitals, clinics and health-care providers are increasingly confronted with language and cultural challenges that can discourage people from seeking care and lead to calamitous errors in diagnoses and treatment regimens.

In the Washington area, a sharp rise of the foreign-born population in the past two decades has been met by a patchwork response in the medical field. Many area hospitals have taken steps such as installing phones to connect patients and staff members to interpreters, hiring interpreters or training employees to do the job, and recruiting bilingual staff. But some large physician practices and small primary and specialty care services have not added language or cultural services.

“All providers in this area should . . . have a mechanism to deal with language barriers,” said Isabel van Isschot, director of interpretation services at La Clinica del Pueblo in Washington, which supplies interpreters to health facilities. When patients don’t have access to an interpreter, she said, “I think that’s a form of discrimination.”

Hospitals and doctors, however, are wary of the cost of interpretation services, which can run up to $190 an hour; they say the government, not them, should pay these costs.

“Appropriate funding for these services is needed so that patients don’t lose access to care,” said Joseph M. Heyman, chair of the board of trustees of the American Medical Association, which has asserted in policy statements that “physicians cannot be expected to provide and fund . . . translation services for their patients.”

A 45-year-old federal civil rights law requires hospitals and doctors who accept federal funds to offer language services. Some federal funding for interpretation services is available through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, state-run programs that serve the poor and children, respectively. But to obtain the money, states have to pitch in some of their own. The District and Virginia have done so; Maryland has not.

California alone has put the funding burden on private insurers for patients who have that coverage. Some other states are considering similar legislation, but the issue is not a political priority in the Washington area, advocates say, even though about 20 percent of residents in the region are foreign-born, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Some 110 languages are spoken here, an analysis of 2000 Census data by the U.S. English Foundation found, making the Washington area the sixth most linguistically diverse urban area in the United States.

Though many immigrants speak enough English to get by in their workplace, that may not be sufficient in the doctor’s office, where medical jargon and emotional reactions can cloud their ability to communicate.

Norma Chinchilla, 26, a Honduran immigrant living in Silver Spring, has been in the United States for four years but has not learned English. Last year, she ran smack into the language barrier while trying to make an appointment over the phone for her 2-year-old son. When she reached an English-only operator at Children’s National Medical Center, the few English words she knew seemed to vaporize as the impatience on the other end of the line grew. She hung up, defeated and without an appointment.


“It has been very hard to get medical care for my son without speaking English,” Chinchilla said.

Paula Darte, public relations director for the center, says it does have a language services office. “It’s troubling that this person didn’t get through the right channels, because there’s usually someone around who speaks Spanish,” she said.

Patients with limited or no English who do manage to obtain care can still fall prey to miscommunication. In a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Glenn Flores, now a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, detailed several such cases. In one, a mother misunderstood instructions and put oral antibiotics in a child’s ears. In another, a doctor not fluent in Spanish interpreted “she hit herself” as “I hit her,” resulting in a mother’s losing custody of her children.

Some interpreters say medical staff sometimes are unsympathetic to immigrants’ needs. “There is a lot of prejudice and animosity,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, an interpreter in Richmond. “Nurses say to me, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ or ‘I know she speaks English.’ ”

To address the language barrier, many area hospitals have installed an array of options. Adventist HealthCare, the parent of Washington Adventist Hospital, has provided medical interpretation and cultural competency training to 150 of its bilingual nurses, janitors, technicians and other staff members.

Kar, the physician who once found it frustrating trying to communicate with Spanish-speakers, says he can now call in a trained bilingual colleague for assistance. And if he has a patient who speaks a rare language, such as Bulgarian, he uses a special phone to reach professional interpreters.

Howard University Hospital has two full-time Spanish interpreters; one full-time Amharic, Tigrinya and French interpreter for the Ethiopian, Eritrean and French West African communities; and one full-time Chinese interpreter.

They also interpret cultural differences. Azeb Abraham, Howard’s Amharic, Tigrinya and French interpreter, says some Ethiopian and Eritrean women feel uncomfortable undressed in the presence of male doctors, so she helps the doctors figure out how to examine the women in a way that does not offend them.

Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church has several full-time interpreters and 700 staff members trained to interpret on the fly in some 35 languages.

Alicia Ellis, one of Inova Fairfax’s full-time medical interpreters, recently got a call for help with a pregnant Nicaraguan woman complaining of vaginal bleeding.

Ellis hurried into a labor and delivery ward to find Juana Varela, 36, lying on her back, her ample belly protruding between the top and bottom of her hospital gown. Ellis explained she was there to interpret for Colleen Pineda, the nurse who would perform the preliminary examination. Ellis began to speak for Varela: “I woke up in the morning with pain and bleeding, and now I’m worried this birth won’t be normal.”

“When did the pain begin?” Pineda asked in English. Ellis repeated the question to Varela in Spanish, her eyes cast down to deflect attention from herself and create a seamless link between doctor and patient.

Other health-care organizations have been slower to invest in interpretation services. George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, a practice that sees about 4,600 patients per day (more than five times the number treated at Inova Fairfax), has no full-time staff interpreters but a few bilingual staff members. According to the group’s chief executive, Stephen Badger, “The cost of interpreters is expensive and usually is greater than the payment we receive [from Medicaid] for the health care actually provided.”

Montgomery County provides professional medical interpreters to clinics at no cost, according to Sonia Mora, manager of the Latino Health Initiative at the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Mora says that there is still a tremendous need in immigrant communities that is not being met and that providers who do have capacity have a huge burden thrust on them. But, she says, she has seen language services improve significantly in the last five years. “Now we’re starting to see that it’s going to save us money, because people are going to be healthier,” she said.

This article was produced through a collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News. KHN is a service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care-policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 17, 2012

Advice to students wishing to become conference interpreters

You’re attracted to a career that would enable you to work with languages. You’ve heard about conference interpreting but you’re not sure exactly what it involves, what studies to pursue, or what opportunities may be available. Here are some questions to consider, and some further information that may point you toward finding your answers.

How can I study to become a conference interpreter?

What do conference interpreters do?

Conference interpreters:

  • bridge the gap in all kinds of multilingual settings where speakers want to express themselves in their own language and still understand one another (conferences, negotiations, press briefings, seminars, depositions, TV broadcasts: you name it!)
  • do not do written translation: translators work with written texts, interpreters convey ideas orally
  • do not just parrot: they convert ideas expressed in one language (the source language) into another language (the target language) as smoothly and idiomatically as possible, preserving the meaning, tone and nuance of the original speaker
  • interpret “consecutively”: i.e. the interpreter is in the same room as the participants, listening carefully to what is said, perhaps taking notes; when each speaker pauses, the interpreter conveys the same message from source to target language
  • interpret “simultaneously”: i.e. the interpreters work in a team sitting in a soundproof booth; they take turns conveying each speaker’s ideas from source to target language in real-time; the audience in the conference room listens through headsets
  • interpret using “chuchotage” or “whispering”: i.e. the interpreter is in the same room as the participants providing a whispered interpretation in real-time to a small number of listeners

Can I be a professional conference interpreter without proper training?

Perhaps: some have managed it, some still do…

  • the interpreters who provided the first simultaneous interpretation at the post-World War II trials had to sink or swim: they had no choice but to train themselves,but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
  • since the 1970s, interdisciplinary research has helped us better grasp the complex processes involved in interpreting and develop new and effective teaching methods
  • systematic training today is the surest route to expertise and successful practice in any profession
  • many hours of effective practice with other trainees and with guidance from experienced teacher/practitioners is essential
  • AIIC promotes best practice in schools by surveying training programmes and providing hands-on support to teachers.

What will a conference interpretation training programme teach me?

To interpret … or more specifically

  • to understand what the speaker wants to say
  • to grasp what lies behind the speaker’s words
  • to keep the message in context
  • to convey it consecutively or simultaneously
  • to learn a special note-taking technique
  • to practice concentration, discourse analysis and fast reaction
  • to build useful glossaries
  • to develop public speaking skills
  • to prepare for different types of assignments
  • to manage stressful situations
  • to observe a code of conduct
  • to prepare for entry into the profession

What kind of personal traits do I need to be a conference interpreter?

These are some of the key skills that interpreters make use of at one time or another:

  • a polished command of their own native language over a range of registers and domains
  • a complete mastery of their non-native languages
  • a familiarity with the cultures in the countries where their working languages are spoken
  • a commitment to helping others communicate
  • an interest in and understanding of current affairs, plus an insatiable curiosity
  • world experience away from home and school and a broad general education
  • good training (and usually at least an undergraduate university degree)
  • the ability to concentrate and focus as a discussion unfolds
  • a pleasant speaking voice
  • a friendly, collegial attitude
  • calm nerves, tact, judgment and a sense of humor
  • a willingness to adhere to rules of conduct (e.g. confidentiality)

Choosing a school: what should I look for?

  • Choosing a school is one of the most important steps you will take on your path to becoming a trained conference interpreter. In order to assist you with your research and decision-making, AIIC regularly contacts many schools worldwide which offerconference interpreting training programmes and asks them to respond to a series of questions; the last time the survey was conducted 178 schools were contacted. The schools’ answers are published on this website. For a variety of reasons (e.g. curriculum in transition, incorrect contact address, etc.) some schools did not respond to the survey questionnaire. This means that, for the present, you may not find them listed on the AIIC website.
  • If you have not already done so, you might want to check out the online Directory of Schools. This Directory will provide you with basic information about any school that has responded to the survey, and give you a link to its own website, if available.
  • When comparing schools and training programmes, you might establish a list of specific criteria which are important to you (location, scholarship support, etc). You might also consult our guide to best practice in training and add some of the considerations below to your personal shopping list:
    • Don’t be in a hurry! Conference interpreters need to have accumulated quite a broad general knowledge as well as an excellent command of their languages (this is one profession where age is in our favor!).
    • Spend some time living and studying or working where your languages are spoken before applying to any training programme. The more you are familiar with the relevant cultural context, the stronger your understanding and expression will be.
    • Opt for a graduate training programme rather than an undergraduate programme. Graduate programmes assume that applicants have a solid command of the languages in their combination and can therefore focus more on skill acquisition as well as advanced language enhancement and an introduction to the theoretical basis of interpreting.
    • Don’t be put off if the school you like best requires you to take an aptitude test! This is intended to help both you and the teachers on the jury get a glimpse of your current abilities in order to assess your readiness to start the programme…and is nothing personal! In some countries, the local legislation does not permit aptitude testing.
    • Take a look at the school’s curriculum:
      • Does the school provide any advice on career prospects?
      • Are the classes offered going to cover your specific training needs?
      • Are classes designed and taught by practicing professional interpreters?
      • Do some of the teachers share your native language?
      • Does the programme offer classes in both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting?
      • Is there a class which explains professional practice (ethics etc.)?
      • Do outsiders, especially potential employers, attend final exams?
    • Final suggestion: you might consider the possibility of visiting one or more schools and observing a couple of relevant classes. You might also arrange to meet some of the instructors and speak to current students or graduates.

How can I prepare?

  • Some things you can do to increase your chances of success before starting a training programme:
    • to enhance all of your languages, selectively and actively read, watch TV and listen to radio in all your languages
    • expand your range of command of your native language
    • go and live where your languages are spoken and immerse yourself in the culture
    • learn more about your planet and your immediate environment
    • increase your general knowledge
    • follow international affairs
    • learn to use a computer
    • learn to take care of yourself and to manage your stress well
    • develop good study skills
    • cultivate patience and the ability to integrate feedback
    • research your training options carefully

Will a professional conference interpreter’s lifestyle suit me?

Try this self-quiz to test your preferences! (There are no wrong answers!)

Question Staff Freelance
Will I have to pass a test or competition to get work? yes probably
Will I have to develop my own competitive professional profile? no essential
Will I be responsible for finding my own work? no yes
Will I usually work for the same institution/s? yes your choice
Can I work with agencies or a range of employers? unlikely yes
Will my employer schedule my workdays? yes no
May I decline assignments? not usually yes
Will I get a regular pay check? yes no
Will I get benefits? yes it depends
Will I have to assess my own tax liability? no yes
Can I live where I wish? doubtful yes
Will I have to travel extensively for work? not necessarily more likely
Will I have to travel for language enhancement? maybe maybe
Will I have in-house opportunities for career development and training? often less likely
Will I need to belong to a professional network or association? preferable important

To find out more about the professional conference interpreter’s lifestyle, check outVEGA.

Will my languages be in demand when I have finished training and am looking for work?

  • A very important question… and hard to predict!
    • plan your profile BEFORE you train: some combinations are more “useful” and more portable than others; beware of a flavor-of-the-month push to add a language which is likely to dropped in the future
    • the tsunami of English continues on its course, no doubt about it: English is more widely used than ever, in all its permutations – and you probably want it in your language combination, specially if you plan to work on your local market
    • your decision to work in-house for an international organisation or freelance will probably affect your choice of languages
    • the good news: A recent study by the AIIC Staff Interpreters Committeeshows that, as the impact of staff changes and retirements becomes more serious, international institutions now are cooperating with schools to try to predict future training needs and cater to a changing kaleidoscope of interpreting needs

If you are interested in working for an international organisation, visit their websites to find out more about their current and future staffing needs; see how often there is a competitive exam for applicants with your language combination. Scroll down to find a list of organisations.

Will I find work after training?

AIIC provides all kinds of advice and support for newly trained conference interpreters entering the profession, even offering you the chance to ask questions.

What other questions should I ask before taking the plunge?

The AIIC Training Committee will do its best to answer any specific questions you may have. Please post them on the message board below: we will try to help you find the answers.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 14, 2012

10 Ways Translation Shapes Your Life

Each year on Sept. 30, a holiday is observed by people all around the world that has been celebrated since 1953. It’s a feast day that was originally designated for a patron saint (Saint Jerome), but it has grown to transcend all barriers of religion or geography. This year, I am personally sending out greetings to thousands of people in 70 different countries in observance of this important day — that’s far more than I send out for any other holiday.

Yet, if you’re like the majority of people, you’ve probably never heard of this cause for global celebration until now. It’s International Translation Day. You might not think about how translation affects your everyday life, but in reality, there is hardly anything in your life that isn’t touched in some way by translation. As I explain in my new book, Found in Translation (co-authored with Jost Zetzsche), here are 10 reasons why translation is so significant:

1. Translation saves lives. Did you know that right this very minute, a massive translation project is scanning the international news to catch words that help identify and contain global health outbreaks, protecting the lives of you and your loved ones? And, countless medical interpreters work in health care facilities, whether it’s a wealthy patient visiting from overseas and paying for treatment at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, or a refugee who is being treated after surviving violence and other horrors.

2. Translation prevents terror. Intelligence gathering is critical for terror prevention, but no matter how helpful the information obtained, it is useless if no one can understand it and analyze its potential impact. Just consider the fact that the words “Tomorrow is zero hour” were intercepted in Arabic on Sept. 10, 2011, but were not translated until Sept. 12, the day after the 9/11 attacks. As you read this message, foreign media analysts are scanning all kinds of information from Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other important hotbeds of potential conflict. They translate that information in order to help prevent terrorist attacks from actually being carried out.

3. Translation keeps the peace. International diplomacy would simply not be possible without translation. The interpreters and translators at the United Nations and the Department of State do far more than just convert speeches and official documents. Translators are often involved in helping draft the exact wording to be used in peace treaties so that it will be agreeable to both sides. Interpreters are involved in conversations and communications between world leaders, and have the power to nurture relationships, providing insight and guidance to prime ministers and presidents, preventing them from making cultural faux pas and helping them to make the best possible impression for themselves and the nations they represent.

4. Translation elects world leaders. In many countries — such as the United States, where one out of every five people speaks a language other than English at home — translation plays a significant role in politics. It’s no accident that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have translated versions of their websites in Spanish, and routinely rely on interpreters to communicate with voters who speak other languages. The U.S. government also requires precincts with large percentages of non-English speakers to provide ballots in other languages. These language specialists have the important task of safeguarding democracy by helping people vote correctly, even in situations where a term like “hanging chad” can barely be understood in English.

5. Translation creates jobs. The translation market is worth $33 billion in 2012, as a recent report from Common Sense Advisory shows. There are more than 26,000 companies throughout the world that sell translation and interpreting services. Most of these are small businesses, a vital contributor to any healthy economy. Not only do these companies employ translators, but people who work in finance, sales, technology, marketing, project management, and even engineering.

6. Translation fuels the economy. Global businesses cannot sell their products and services without translation. Pick any Fortune 500 company, visit their website, and chances are it’s multilingual. If not, those companies are likely to employ workers who speak other languages, even if they only cater to domestic markets. Without translation, these companies would be unable to meet the expectations of customers — and shareholders.

7. Translation entertains us. Whether you’re a fan of soccer, baseball, hockey, or some other sport, just look at your home team, and chances are you’ll find an interpreter or translator on the field or the court. Sports are becoming more international than ever before, and geography is no barrier to recruiting the best possible athletic talent, but language is. That’s why professional athletes rely on interpreters when moving from country to country. But other important sources of entertainment, like movies and books, also require translation. How successful would The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have been if everyone were forced to read it in Swedish?

8. Translation tests our faith. Many people read a translation every night before they go to bed, in the form of a sacred text. While some holy books are read in their original language, most followers of religions are not able to access those sources of spiritual information without translation. Indeed, translation is often the source of controversy in religion, whether it’s a discussion of whether the Quran should be translated or left in its original Arabic, or whether a new translation indicates that Jesus was married.

9. Translation feeds the world. The people who work in the fields where food is grown often speak different languages from the people who buy the produce picked by their hands. The same is true of meat processing plants. And, major food and beverage companies like McDonald’s, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks sell their products globally, but only thanks to translation. All of these businesses rely on translation to communicate with workers who speak other languages, which means that human resource manuals, training software — and sometimes, worker’s compensation cases — must be translated to put the food on the table.

10. Translation makes us fall in love. Yes, people fall in love thanks to translation. Whether it’s thanks to a translated love poem by Pablo Neruda or a translated Hallmark greeting card, translation can help ignite a spark between two people. Having worked as an interpreter for countless “cupid calls,” in which two people in love defy the odds by engaging in sweet talk across languages, I can attest that love knows no barriers — as long as there is translation to hold people together.

And speaking of love, this word seems to be an appropriate way to describe the translation profession. When we polled translators and interpreters for our book, we saw that they love their jobs — 96.4 percent of respondents reported that they were satisfied with their work.

So, to do your part for International Translation Day, take a moment to consider this profession that is often overlooked, but critical to society as we know it. And perhaps even say thank you to a translator or an interpreter. They’re out there, each day, touching your life in ways that are unseen, but that truly make the world go ’round.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

The brain is plastic. Sugar is bad, exercise is good. Daydreaming is good. Stress is a good thing too, or maybe a bad thing, depending on how you use it. Writing by hand is better than typing. Even swearing can be good! Some of these statements may be old news, others surprising. What does all this have to do with interpreting? Well, it comes from recent research on how the brain functions, and it can be applied to improving interpreters’ performance.

Reports in the press reveal a great deal of information about the latest scientific discoveries, written in language that anyone can understand. There are also academic journals devoted exclusively to research on interpreting, and often practitioners can glean information that has implications for their daily work. I will report on some of this research and on the resources available to help interpreters keep up with the latest developments.
One of the most astounding discoveries is that the adult brain is plastic, meaning that it is rewiring itself constantly and growing new neurons as we have new experiences.

We used to think that the brain stopped developing at the end of childhood, and that dead brain cells were replaced (if at all) at a much slower rate in adults than in children. But it turns out that even adult brains can respond to either damage to critical areas of the brain or to new experiences through a process called adult neurogenesis. Cerebral structures and organization can actually change over time, depending on the activities in which we engage. In other words, what we do can either enhance or detract from our cerebral capacity.
We have known for a long time about how short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM) interact to process meaningful information, and researchers have continued to investigate these two aspects of memory. It is now thought that working memory is something that applies to both STM and LTM. Long-term working memory (LTWM) involves developing associated networks of neurons that enable us to retrieve information rapidly and apply it to new situations.

Alex MacDonald writes that LTM development occurs in three stages: 1) acquisition of information; 2) consolidation into neural circuits for long-term storage; and 3) retrieval by several parts of the brain working together.1 The constant process of feedback and modification that occurs as new memories are laid down is essential for learning, and the third step, retrieval, is particularly important in interpreting.
Barbara Moser-Mercer, one of the leading interpreting researchers, has done a great deal of research focused specifically on the cognitive aspects of interpreting. She has found that interpreters develop procedural memories that enable them to select, organize, and store information relevant to their interpreting assignments.2 This capacity improves over the years as interpreters progress from novice to expert, provided that they engage in what Moser-Mercer calls “deliberate practice.” This term refers to the repeated and intensive performance of exercises targeted specifically to the development of interpreting skills, enhancing awareness of one’s own interpreting in terms of both process and output, and receiving structured feedback on areas that need further work. This is more than mere rote practice, repeating the same things over and over again (and making the same mistakes over and over again).

According to Moser-Mercer, expert interpreters employ strategies such as anticipation (drawing on information they gathered and organized as they prepared for the assignment in order to predict what the speaker is going to say during the interpreting itself) and monitoring their own output (making sure their production matches the target-language version they prepared in their working memory and then adjusting or refining that production as they get further into the speech). And it is deliberate practice that enables interpreters to internalize these strategies. Fascinatingly, this process actually alters the structure and organization of the expert interpreter’s brain. In the conclusion of her latest article, Moser-Mercer states that although not enough research has been done to reach definitive conclusions, it is clear that adult neurogenesis is real: the adult brain is indeed capable of continued growth. So those of us who are approaching our senior years need not despair.

Those brain exercises you read about on the Internet are not necessarily the answer, however. Other research, not focusing on interpreting but relevant nonetheless, tells us that although both mental and physical activity can enhance memory, they must be challenging in order to have any effect. Marissa Cevallos writes that it is not enough to do the newspaper crossword puzzle every day or walk along the same route that you always use.3 You must challenge your senses constantly with new and more difficult exercises for cerebral growth to take place. In other words, “If it’s not hard, it’s not helping.” Cevallos quotes one researcher’s recommendation that people learn a new musical instrument, a different language, or how to paint. Even something as simple as getting dressed in the dark can be useful, as long as it is novel.

Cevallos also points out that the harmful things we do to our bodies can also harm our brains: “Stress kills neurons and prevents new ones from growing, and can lead to depression,” which is “fertile ground for Alzheimer’s.” Furthermore, worrying seems to impede memory. When we go into a particularly stressful situation, such as interpreting at a high-profile event attended by VIPs and the press, or taking a certification exam, excessive worrying about our performance can prevent us from achieving our maximum potential.

Joanne Richard suggests that we need to learn how to worry properly in order to succeed.4 She quotes Sian Bielock, a psychologist who specializes in performance anxiety, as saying that over-analyzing the negative consequences of a poor performance makes it harder to access the information we need and impairs the networking functions of the brain, resulting in “information logjams.” Bielock recommends practicing under pressure to simulate the stress of the situation for which we are preparing, and focusing on the outcome rather than the mechanics. When helping people prepare to speak in public, she says, “If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word.”5 This is an approach I often recommend to interpreting students: that they focus on the big picture rather than the individual words of what they are interpreting.

As is often the case, however, different findings on how the brain works seem to contradict each other. Another study reported by Tom Avril in The Philadelphia Inquirer concludes that a little bit of stress in the form of any amount of electrical stimulation can improve recall.6

It could also be argued that the anxiety and frustration we experience as we struggle to solve a sudoku puzzle or learn to play a new piece on the piano is just the kind of stress we need to keep stimulating brain growth. In any case, no one is claiming that we should all undergo electroshock therapy or deliberately subject ourselves to stressful situations. Apparently, we need to experience stress in moderation.
Another thing that has to be done in moderation is eating. Studies carried out by McDonald show that our diet and physical activity can affect our memory.7 For example, it has been established that glucose contributes around 99% of the energy the brain needs. Now scientists have discovered that impaired glucose tolerance (a feature of diabetes, which can be caused by obesity and inactivity, among other factors) is associated not only with heart and circulation problems but also with the deterioration of brain functions. What happens is that glucose intolerance causes shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is critical for both immediate and delayed recall. Therefore, it is possible that by increasing our glucose tolerance through diet and exercise we may be able to improve our memory.

Because interpreters have to be good problem solvers, we can all benefit from the research on brain wave activity cited by Robert Lee Hotz. It shows that daydreaming is not a sign of a lazy brain, but is actually a demanding activity that helps us develop our intuitive problem-solving ability. The sudden insights that occur during those “aha” moments when we are suddenly able to solve a problem are actually “the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning.”8 When the mind is wandering, brain activity increases even more than it does when it is reasoning with a complex problem. In another study reported by Hotz, subjects who solved puzzles by means of insight rather than reasoning had a pattern of high-frequency neuronal activity as much as eight seconds before the answer came to the subject’s conscious mind. That is, their brain knew the answer well before they did. Furthermore, people in a positive mood were more likely to experience insight. The researchers conclude that much of our creative thought comes from processes that are outside our awareness and beyond our direct control. These findings comport with those described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, which discusses the benefits of relying on implicit association, the product of the right hemisphere’s powerful intuitive processes.9

Another interesting finding that could be applicable to interpreting is that writing by hand instead of keyboarding contributes to brain development. Gwendolyn Bounds reports that the physical act of writing engages the brain in learning because it requires the execution of sequential strokes to form letters (in contrast to typing, which allows us to select an entire letter simply by touching a key).10 It seems that the sequential finger movements involved in handwriting activate parts of the brain associated with thinking, language, and working memory. This is another reason why note-taking is so important for interpreting. Not only do the notes help us recall things that are difficult to remember such as names and figures, but evidently they also enhance cerebral functioning in other ways.

And finally, my favorite research finding: apparently, swearing helps us tolerate pain. A study by a British psychologist reported in Science NOW Daily News revealed that when subjects were asked to say curse words out loud, they could keep their hand in a bucket of ice water much longer than a control group that uttered innocuous words.11 I do not know if this has anything to do with interpreting, other than the fact that court interpreters often have to say four-letter words on the record in court, but it does appeal to my perverse sense of humor.

In conclusion, it is clear that there is a wealth of information available in the press as well as in interpreting journals upon which we can draw to improve our interpreting techniques.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

Posted by: sbilingual | December 12, 2012

Words Versus Hours

Translators are usually paid by the word in the United States, however in some situations they are paid by the hour. How to calculate a good hourly rate, and when to accept an hourly payment schedule instead of the usual word-rate system is often difficult to determine.

For at least two decades, freelance translators have typically been paid by the word in the United States. Work counts have typically been based on the translation and not the source document, though with some languages, including in particular Chinese and Japanese, word rates are based on English regardless of which languages the source language. This is simply because counting words in these languages is highly problematic. In Europe, translators are often paid by the line (especially for German because of its often long nouns) or by the page.

In some cases, however, the freelance translator will receive an offer for a job that is to be paid by the hour. This is most common when working with law firms since attorneys commonly think in terms of billable hours, and not the number of words in a particular text. Translators must therefore calculate how many words per hour they can reasonably translate and then create an hourly rate that reflects this level of productivity and income.

The problem occurs when clients, usually translation agencies but sometimes other organizations, attempts to use an hourly calculation as a way to save money. From the client’s perspective, an hourly payment schedule may see more reasonable, easier to manage, and at a comfortable hourly rate, ultimately cheaper.

From the translator’s perspective, any attempt to charge by the hour or in any other way that reduces the translator’s income is naturally resisted. Nobody wants to be paid less, and nobody willingly accepts payment system that automatically results in their being paid less. So the calculation mentioned above, by which a translator figures productivity and charges an hourly rate accordingly, becomes very important.

The calculation is simple if translators know their hourly productivity. Experienced translators can easily come up with a good estimate by looking at old jobs and figuring out how long they took to complete. The less experienced translator may have to ask a colleague for such information. For reference, many agencies and organizations assume a translator can produce approximately 300 to 400 words per hour, though this number of course varies depending on the individual translator and the nature of the text being translated.

The problem becomes stickier when the translator’s calculation, in other words the desired hourly rate, is significantly different from what the client wants to pay. Hourly rates of between $40 and $50 seem common these days in the industry, though there are many instances of lower and higher rates. It is up to the individual to decide whether a given job is worth the rate and to calculate accurately so that job is worthwhile what it is completed.

There is also here the potential for abuse, at least as seen from the client’s perspective. There are rumors of translators padding their productivity, claiming more hours worked than were actually worked. Clients are aware of this and of course want to avoid it, and therefore typically set a ceiling on the job: a maximum number of hours the translator may take (this practice is very common for editing and proofreading, and therefore should not be surprising for translators).

Translators by contrast can similarly charge a minimum for these jobs, so that even if the job does not take very long, they are nonetheless assured a reasonable amount of money for their efforts.

Ultimately, productivity is the greatest measure of one is worth in business, and therefore the payment system that recognizes and rewards productivity, as does work counts, is preferable from the translators’ perspective, and should be acceptable to clients.

In the case of clients that prefer an hourly rate, they should be aware that the amount of work the translator is doing does not change with the payment system, and therefore the payment should be the same. If it is not, then somebody has either overcharged or been underpaid. Attempts to save money this way are futile, and likely to alienate good translators.

Thus, translator should always make sure to negotiate a fair payment schedule ahead of time with any client, and then stick to it. Past experience of course should be used to negotiate for each new job, and client education may be necessary and useful. In my experience, the question of payment based on work counts versus hours worked is usually easily resolved with reasonable clients.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

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