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Language Line

Author: Julie Caulier Grice
Published Date: 23 February 2008

Providing access to language interpreters over the telephone helping to ensure that all citizens gain equal access to the services provided at central and local levels.


For centuries, Britainbeen a place where people have come from other countries because they were being persecuted or because they were economic migrants. Someforty thousand Huguenots arrived in the 17th Century; hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were followed by waves of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, from the Caribbean countries and from West and East Africa during the second part of the 20th century. The recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia and in the Middle East coupled with poverty in Africa and elsewhere have led to large numbers of ethnic Albanians, Kurds, Arabs, Somalis, Nigerians, and many many others arriving in the UK.Most recently, with the expansion of the European Union, two years ago, some half a million peoplehave come to Britain from Eastern Europe. Until recently many of these migrants have initially settled in east London, perhaps because of its proximity to London docks but also because of its multicultural character.To this day, EastLondon contains one of the largest mixes of people to be found anywhere.


I want to tell you a story about a remarkable company that has provided help to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, and hassaved the lives of hundreds of others in the United Kingdom over the pastfifteen years. The company is called Language Line. The concept is simple as is so often the case with organisations that make a real difference.Michael Young, the founder of what is now the Young Foundation, spent almost all his working life in Bethnal Green in East London. On one occasion he had to go to the London Hospital because he had a heart complaint. While he was waiting, he noticed that there were large numbers of patients, mainly of South Asia origin, who were having considerable difficulty communicatingwith the medical staff because of language.Though ad hoc interpreters, maybe cleaners or kitchen staff, were found who could help out, sometimes patients were asked to return on another day when a professional interpreter could be provided. Neither of these arrangements was satisfactory.This lead him to wonderwhat else might be done to provide for better and quicker communication between patients and staff. Hisidea was to provide access to language interpreters over the telephone. In its earliest form, the telephone handset was simply passed between doctor and patient and the remote interpreter translated what was said. So no special equipment was needed and the initial service set up very quickly. Michael Young was able to obtain a small grant from part of the Government to test this concept.Initially just four languages were provided and the service was free to users.It was an instant success. The interpreters were all home workers and were generally from the same community as the non English speakers. They were happy to help citizens from their own communities but it was necessary to pay them so that they could be relied upon to be available when required during the day or the night.It was not long before the service was being used by many others in the public sector, for example, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Police, the Ambulance Service, housings trusts, the Immigration Service, indeed all parts of the public sector that dealt directly with non English speakers.Though some more grant aid was obtained it soon became clear that to ensure the service grew both in volume of interpretations and number of languages involved it would be necessary to charge. The charge was initially set at one pound per minute. This was paid by the hospital or the government department, not by the users. This charge provided some funds both to operate the service including the telephone call costs and remuneration for the interpreter. This might seem quite expensive in absolute terms but it provided excellent value for the users and wascheaper than requiring an interpreter to come for a face to face meeting. The service could be used when it was needed and only for as long as it was needed.This was typically about ten to fifteen minutes per interpretation.


The service was now operational and soon was providing aboutfifteen foreign languages. It had about eight employees and aroundfifty part time interpreters and it was obvious that it was popular with the people using it who found it effective and theyliked the immediacy of access to the interpreter.As grants were coming to an end Michael Young realised that he needed to put the operation onto a proper commercial footing, as it has been operating as a charity up to this point. It was at this time that he approached me and asked me to become chairman of the company and to grow the service as rapidly as possible and to ensure that it did not require grant aid. I went to work at the offices in Bethnal Green and examined the possible market for the service, how to extend it to cover more languages and to provide a greater spread across other government and commercial users throughout the country.The first thing that became clear was that the tariff we were charging, one pound per minute, was not nearly enough.We decided to take the bold step to increase this to three pounds per minute. We explained to our clients that this was necessary to ensure that the service remained fully available and to extend the reach into other languages.They all, without exception, understood and agreed to the new charges. Shortly after we started to invest in some new telephone technology to make the telephone conference work better both to improve the voice quality but to start the process of automatic logging of call data and semi automated billing. I come from a business background and strongly believe that amongst the important business drivers is the provision of a quality service and the introduction of automation where this can be shown to be cost effective and where it will further enhance quality.I also recruited a professional management team, to provide leadership, to undertake proper marketing and to ensure that the management and financial data was accurate.With this in place we were all set to take the business forward. The company moved out of the incubator environment of the original premises in Bethnal Green and took on a fresh identity. We grew the number of languages on offer to more than a hundred though as is so often the case some eighty per cent of the call volumes came from 20% of the languages. It was necessary to do this as the language mix was ever changing, languages like Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu gradually declined as a percentage of the whole - while Kurdish, Albanian, Arabic, Farsi and Polish grew. For the most part this was a result of the geo-political scene and the arrival of significant numbers of asylum seekers in the country.The changing pattern of language put a severe strain on the recruitment of telephone interpreters.We undertook a programme of interpreter training in conjunction with some of the London based universities and helped to introduce the formal qualification of the Diploma of Public Service Interpreting. We also entered into agreements with interpreting services in the United States and Australia to swap traffic when our loads or their's warranted it or when we didn’t have an interpreter in the requested language available.There was some time advantage in doing this as well as night time in the UK would be daytime in the US or Australia.This allowed us all to provide a better service and to increase yet further the range of languages offered.The increased traffic level and the economy of scale was beginning to allow us to reduce the tariff, in particular to those organisations who found it difficult to afford. Further investment was made in the telephony systems and in the accounting and billing to ensure that we could generate accurate itemised bills to all the customers rapidly a the end of the month.We were handling about 1.5 million minutes of interpretation or 130,000 calls a year. This represented on a busy day betweenthreeand four hundredcalls during a twenty four hour day.To handle this volume sometwelve part time operators were needed working in shifts.Overninety five per centof all calls were connected to an interpreter within one minute. At this stage, 1998, the company was still largely owned by the predecessor organisations of the Young Foundation with asmall percentage held by some of the management team. These organisations were keen to start up some new enterprises, the School for Social Entrepreneurs amongst others. Discussions were then held with a view to selling all or part of the equity to provide capital for some of these new ventures.Eventually in 1999, the company was sold to a management buyout backed by a venture capital organisation for somefour million pounds.This represented approximatelythe totalrevenue of the business at that point and aboutseven times the profit before tax.I was invited by the new backers to remain chairman of the business. The injection of cash following the sale has allowed the Young Foundation to grow and to flourish as it represented money that was available to be spent on whatever the trustees deemed appropriate rather than just on specific projects as would typically be the case with money from grant giving bodies.


At the same time, the Company was in need of additional capital to help its continued growth to meet demand. The number of asylum seekers entering Britain at this time as a result of the conflicts in the Balkans and in the Middle East meant that the demand for the service increased substantially. The new backers were able to provide this money and the company continued to expand rapidly.Competition started to emerge in the marketplace which meant that it was necessary to drive the prices and the operating costs of the business down. It was now possible to offer the service for somewhere between £1.50 and £2.00per minute, about half of the tariff from some six years earlier. We decided to open a subsidiary of the company in Germany to provide a similar service into the German language there.However this operation was not successful and we decided to focus all our energies on the UK and Ireland.


During the course of the normal operations there have been some truly amazing cases where the provision of this service has made a real difference.It is an everyday experience that ambulance crews are called to horrific accidents and need to communicate with the victim or those nearby only to discover they don’t speak English. There have also been some really exceptional cases also. In once case a small Kurdish child of four years old saw her mother in some difficulty and was able to call the emergency services on the phone. The police operator who took the call rapidly realised that something was seriously wrong and contacted the ambulance service who were not able to communicate adequately with the child who spoke almost no English. Language Line was called and it transpired that the mother was in fact giving premature birth.Using a Language Line interpreter, a midwife was able to talk the child and to tell her how to help her mother. By the time the ambulance crew arrived it was all over and there was a tired mother and a healthy baby boy.In another case a Chinese cargo vessel with technical problems was drifting towards rocks in the sea off Ireland, the coast guard was unable to communicate with the crew and called for Language Line’s help.This resulted in helicopters and life boats and tugs being scrambled who saved both the crew and the ship.There are stories of this kind every month. In 2003 these venture capital backers had seem the company grow by abouttwo hundred and fifty per centand the profits triple and they decided to exit the business.The company was sold to a second venture capital backed management buyout for aboutfifteen million pounds. Again I was asked to stay with the company which I was happy to do. Earlier this year the company was sold for a third time to an American company (Language Line Services Inc of California) in asimilar business.At the time of this last sale the revenues of the company were about twelve million pounds and we were conducting almost half a million transactions per annum.


Many people have asked me whether the original operation should have been sold for four million pounds, when if they had waited just four years they could have got almost four times as much.I think the answer is that they were right. There are two primary reasons I say that, first they would never have been able to fund the additional investment needed to enable to business to prosper, at least at that time.Second, the business support and controls applied by the financial backer helped the management make the right commercial decisions quickly. In any event the conclusion is that there is a thriving telephone interpretation company operating in the UK with a number of others mimicking it. These businesses are fulfilling a vital social need helping to ensure that all citizens gain equal access to the services provided at central and local levels. The Young Foundation as we see it today now working in conjunction with Chinese partners has been enormously strengthened by the funds raised by the creation and subsequent sale of the company.