Good Advice Health and Safety abroad

How to cope with... Language barriers


The English have been resting on their lingual-laurels for far too long, travelling under the assumption that everyone will understand some of their native tongue. But panicked Babel Fish word-checks do not make the grade in a world where business spans continents and cultures, and making yourself understood is crucial to the success of your trip.

Hire an interpreter

If you’re visiting a place where English isn’t widely spoken, hiring a translator can be helpful. K International (k-international.com) has about 6,000 interpreters based in major cities around the globe, who can be called upon at a few hours’ notice. Stewart Pearce, head of marketing for the company, says he is seeing a revival in requests for face-to-face language services: “It’s cyclical. We had two or three years of everyone wanting to video-conference, then you realise it’s not quite the panacea you thought.”

Choose a translation style to suit your needs

Ensure you are comfortable with the interpreter’s method to avoid awkward pauses or misunderstandings. Consecutive translation, when you stop to let them speak, is best if you are presenting simple slides with a few pointers on each, though you need to be able to keep the thread alive and seamlessly pick up where you left off. “Some people are very good at it – actors, for one – but it’s down to the individual,” Pearce says. Simultaneous translation, when the interpreter translates quietly over you or through earpieces the clients wear, may be preferable for longer, more complex presentations.

Get some virtual help

For informal communication through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and MSN, Ortsbo (ortsbo.com) offers a free translation service that allows you to chat in real time with someone who speaks another language. It claims the technology is up to 85 per cent accurate. More than 50 languages are covered, and once you have logged on, whatever you type in the chat box will appear with a translation beneath it. An Outlook add-on that translates emails has also been launched.

Download an app

Applications are making mobile learning an efficient way to cut corners. Penpower Technology’s Worldictionary (£2.99, penpower.net) for the iPhone translates between nine languages – just take a photo of a word and the software will provide a dictionary meaning. US-based company Speechtrans (speechtrans.com), meanwhile, has designed the Ultimate app (£11.99), which allows you to record speech from seven languages and have it spoken back in your native tongue (14 to choose from). John Frei, Speechtrans’ chief executive, predicts that the next phase of translation software will improve on its existing 90 per cent accuracy by understanding colloquial terms.

Google Translate has developed a free app with 15 input languages and up to 57 audio/text output, available on Apple and Android devices, but it is missing a few handy features offered by Speechtrans – namely a 55-second speech limit (Google has 15) and no text-to-speech limit (Google offers 100 characters max). With eight language apps operational offline (costing £2.99-£16.99), Jibbigo (jibbigo.com) is a good alternative.

Learn a little

Rough Guides’ pocket phrase books (£4.99) are good to have on stand-by and come with audio conversations that can be downloaded to your laptop or iPod. The 32-language World Travel Toolkit phrase book (£7, amazon.co.uk) was launched for Kindle e-readers this year.

Learn a lot

Going back to school to learn a language needn’t be daunting. Simon and Simon International (simonandsimon.co.uk) specialises in training business people and works the lesson schedule around the client, with teachers available at 24 hours’ notice. Managing director Simon Robinson says: “I’m convinced companies miss out on billions in sales every year because they don’t equip employees with the language skills they need.”

If you prefer to learn when and where you want, Rosetta Stone (rosettastone.co.uk) launched its new Version 4 Totale software in May, which offers users the added benefit of scheduling live online video tutorials with native speakers. There’s also an app for iPhones and iPads.

Tips for using an interpreter

  • Pause routinely so listeners can absorb the material in their own language or ask questions
  • Emphasise key words to give them something to grab hold of
  • Be confident and make eye contact with everyone, including the interpreter
  • The latter is important as you may pick up that you’re speaking too quickly
  • Watch your audience for a reaction and use this to your advantage. As K International’s Stewart Pearce says, there is “a little bit of theatre” to presenting and keeping people engaged.