Starting Wednesday, a toll-free telephone number will connect immigrants, tourists and business travelers to translators standing by to communicate a caller's needs to the city government and a handful of businesses that have signed on to the eight-language pilot program.
The Your World, Your Language service is a collaboration between telecom giant AT&T and interpretation provider Language Line Services. It's starting in San Francisco, where nearly half of all residents speak a language other than English, but is slated to go nationwide over the next year-and-a-half.
"Clearly, the demographics of the country are staggering, and we believe once the service is readily available it will be used by millions," said Louis Provenzano, president of Language Line Services.
The service is free for callers, with participating companies and organizations paying for the two-way translations- about $15 for a 10-minute call, Provenzano said. Language Line already offers over-the-phone interpreters versed in over 170 languages to government agencies, health care institutions, insurers and other companies, including AT&T.
AT&T also has bilingual service representatives on staff to help non-English speaking customers. But with dozens of languages from Albanian to Swahili used by U.S. residents - Census data show that about one out of five speaks a language other than English - having in-house interpreters isn't feasible for many businesses and service providers, said Jody Garcia, an AT&T vice president for specialty customer care.
The idea for Your World, Your Language came in part from the businesses that agreed to test it, according to Garcia. Frustrated by the uncertain success of multilingual advertising campaigns, the companies wanted a better way to reach a "warm lead," someone who is already interested in a product or service.
The telephone translation service appeared to offer that, plus the tools to change an eager consumer into a buyer, she said.
"It's clear customers are looking to reach us in their language of their choice," said Garcia. "It's a way for business to grow their bottom line and really value the consumer."
The service will be available initially in eight languages that reflect the linguistic diversity of San Francisco: Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. The range of businesses participating in the pilot program is limited for now, but includes Dish Network, Cingular Wireless and the city government.
For the city, which has struggled to link its diverse array of residents with information ranging from where to vote to how to find parks, the program was "a perfect match," said Scott Oswald, with the mayor's office of neighborhood services.
"Our goal is to reach more and more folks and help them out," he said, adding that as a public entity the city was invited to take part in the program for free.
As part of their partnership, Language Line Services is providing the interpreters while AT&T is routing calls and maintaining the telephone network.