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Need An Interpreter? Just Pick Up The Phone

If businesses want to speak the language of their clients, it doesn't have to mean hiring bilingual workers.

Imagine being able to pick up a phone and connect to an interpreter in just about any language. Hospitals have long used such services. Now, such phone-based interpretation may also be gaining traction in the marketplace.

The pharmacy chain Rite Aid is currently testing phone-based interpretation services in a couple dozen of its locations. It eventually plans to offer phone-based interpretation services in all of its stores nationwide.

"Obviously, with the critical nature of health care, and medications and their side effects, it's much better to speak to customers in their native tongue," says Scott Jacobson, Rite Aid's director of pharmacy operations.

As an example, he points to doctors' prescriptions that call for taking medication "once daily." The word "once" in Spanish means 11.

The interpretation service allows a pharmacist to get a trained medical interpreter on the line to mediate a conversation with a client.

At a Rite Aid in Falls Church, Va., recently, a pharmacist used the service to explain to a customer why the insurance company wouldn't automatically pay for a certain cough medicine.

In this store, as in two dozen others, Rite Aid is testing out special dual handset phones. The customer uses one handset to speak to an interpreter over the phone, while a pharmacist listens in on the other handset. Jacobson says the setup's key advantage is allowing pharmacist and client to stand face to face.

"Oftentimes, body movement can cross that foreign barrier as well," he says, "so it tends to help."

This spring in New York state, seven pharmacy chains were forced to boost language access after a civil rights complaint. But as the country's large immigrant workforce heads into old age, with all its aches and maladies, Rite Aid says it hopes that offering language interpretation services nationwide makes good business sense.

When companies speak to customers in their native language, "they're four times more likely to buy a good or a product or a service from that company," says Louis Provenzano, the head of Language Line, one of the largest phone interpretation services and the company Rite Aid has signed up with.

Language Line has 8,000 interpreters posted around the globe; together, they provide service in 176 languages. Clients include police departments, insurance companies, banks and government agencies.

Still, the average cost of phone interpretation is $1.40 a minute, and some businesses have been cutting back during the recession. At the Falls Church, Va., Rite Aid store, one customer said he didn't have time to fiddle with the phone. It was a good idea, he said, but he preferred to stick with his broken English.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

Today: technology and the language barrier. Imagine you're in a job that puts you face to face with customers. What would you do or say when someone asks you something, but doesn't ask in English? Now, imagine being able to pick up a phone and connect to an interpreter in just about any language. Hospitals have long used such services, and they're gaining traction in all kinds of industries.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: At a Rite Aide store in Northern Virginia, the pharmacist has to tell a Spanish-speaking client why the insurance company won't automatically pay for a certain cough medicine. So, they each step to a telephone on the counter.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to Language Line Services. For Spanish, press one.

LUDDEN: This phone looks like any other except it has two handsets - one for the pharmacist, and one for the customer. The pharmacist, herself foreign born, describes the problem.

Unidentified Woman: They pay for only three day until the doctor call insurance for prior authorization.

LUDDEN: The customer listens on his handset as a trained medical interpreter explains.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Rite Aide has just signed up for phone interpretation in all its stores, but is testing these dual handsets in only a couple dozen. Company official Scott Jacobson says their advantage is allowing pharmacist and client to stand face to face.

Mr. SCOTT JACOBSON (Director of Pharmacy Operation, Rite Aide): Oftentimes, you know, body movement can speak across that foreign barrier as well. So, it tends to help.

LUDDEN: This spring in New York state, seven pharmacy chains were forced to boost language access after a civil rights complaint. But as the country's large immigrant workforce heads into old age, with all its aches and maladies, Rite Aide hopes that doing this nationally makes good business sense.

Mr. LOUIS PROVENZANO (Head, Language Line): When companies speak to them in language, they're four times more likely to buy a good or a product or a service from that company.

LUDDEN: That's Louis Provenzano, head of Language Line, one of the largest phone interpretation services. Each call is routed to one of its 8,000 interpreters posted around the globe.

Mr. PROVENZANO: Currently, we're providing 176 languages across 18 different time zones.

LUDDEN: Clients include police departments, insurance companies, banks and government agencies. By logging their calls, Language Line can actually track migration.

Mr. PROVENZANO: We're able to issue alerts for our clients in any given city, or any part of the country, to show demographic changes.

LUDDEN: The average cost for phone interpretation is about $1.40 a minute. Some businesses have been cutting back during the recession. At the Virginia Rite Aide store, one customer said he thought the system was a good idea, but he didn't have time to fiddle with the phone. So he stuck with his broken English.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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