The Drive: Transit information offered in 200 languages

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2013 - 8:38 PM

Sprechen sie Deutsch? ¿Hablas Español? Koj puts hats lug hmoob?

Whatever your tongue, Metro Transit and suburban transit providers are speaking your language.

Riders whose primary language is not English now can get trip planning assistance and transit information through a network of interpreters who speak more than 200 languages.

More than 100 callers have used the new Language Line since its soft launch in September, but officials expect those numbers to rise when marketing efforts start this spring and summer. So far, more than 90 percent of users have requested interpreters who speak Spanish, Somali and Hmong. But there have been requests for translations in Amharic, Oromo, Swahili, Tamil, Tagalog and Vietnamese, said John Howley, manager of the Transit Information Center (TIC). The center fields calls for Metro Transit riders as well as SouthWest Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink, Maple Grove Transit and Blue­Xpress customers.

“Our reps want to help people; that is why they are here,” Howley said. It is frustrating “when you have to turn a customer away because you can’t communicate. Now we have a resource that can help them.”

It’s simple for the caller to use. An operator at the TIC identifies the need for an interpreter and contacts LanguageLine Solutions, a company in Monterey, Calif., that has a contract with the state of Minnesota for translation services. The company finds somebody from its network of translators and puts him or her on the line. The caller, the TIC operator and the translator have a “conference call” that is similar to calls that pass through a relay service for the hearing-impaired or speech-disabled.

Transit providers are billed $1.25 per minute per call to provide the service, said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.

“With the diverse community we live in, Language Line is a real plus,” said Cathy Taylor, who has been a TIC representative for the past 13 years.

The Twin Cities joins New York City and Toronto as some of the first North American transit systems to use LanguageLine Solutions, said Winnie Heh, director of the firm’s global operations.

The 30-year-old company uses “quality interpreters” to provide translation services in more than 200 languages for hospitals, government agencies, banks, utility companies and even emergency personnel, she said.

The line’s addition to local transit providers’ repertoire of services comes as the metro area’s population has become more diverse. So has bus and train ridership.

A 2010 survey conducted by Metro Transit found that more than 25 percent of the agency’s ridership is composed of minorities, many of whom speak languages other than English.

In 2012, the 37 full-time TIC representatives answered more than 1.2 million calls. While they are trained to deal with callers whose native tongue is not English by simplifying conversations, repeating and rephrasing sentences, “there was a segment that we could not serve,” Howley said.

To promote Language Line (612-373-3333), Siqveland said Metro Transit plans to put ads on its buses and trains, feature it on its website, www.metrotransit.org, and promote it at events such as travel fairs.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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