Friday, November 15, 2013

Facing language barriers

It's wonderful to have a daughter who is a Management Consultant and something of a world traveller! I arrived in London and was pretty relaxed about my Berlin sojourn, where I am presenting at a conference, when she rattled off 10 questions to all of which my answer was an embarrassing "no". Have you checked in? Have you printed your boarding pass? Have you booked a cab to pick you up? Have you confirmed your hotel reservation?, etc. I then received a primer on travelling budget in Europe, where everything is automated and where language barriers can still be pretty daunting. I followed her instructions but still had to resort to hand and foot gestures when directing the cabbie to my hotel in Berlin, based on a prior knowledge of my route with an iMaps download on my phone (per her advice), and when paying the right fare.

We live in a global world and in Berlin, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, I had faced head-on the frightening prospect of not being understood. I have faith in their law and order here and yet felt utterly vulnerable. Nothing I knew or had learned, mattered given my inability to express myself to the cab driver at that late hour.

Interestingly, our staff team is currently working on a proposal to help homeless limited English speakers access City Shelters in Canada supported by language interpreters. The importance of this proposal and the desperate plight of homeless experiencing language barriers has dawned on me with even greater poignancy now. I am determined more than ever to convey my deep concern that the City not fail them given its preoccupation with cost savings based on utilitarian theories! Even one homeless person is one too many. Fresh from my trip to India where the numbers of marginalized and homeless are mounting with rising housing costs, I simply cannot bury my head in the sand anymore.

But I digress. Language barriers are real and helping people overcome them is pretty exciting work. My presentation at InDialog, which is part of the larger Expo Lingua global conference for language schools, is along the theme of John Kotter's "Our Iceberg is Melting". It explores how disruptive technologies and the digitisation of all professions, including language professions, is making our world increasingly complex and presenting both challenges and opportunities. The immense potential of technology became evident in one session yesterday, where a deaf presenter signed in German, the Sign Language Interpreter verbalized in English and his topic was on the use of two geography agnostic services to overcome all language barriers, Video Remote Interpreting and Video Relay Service. The deaf person and interpreter just happened to be in the same room but could have been communing from different parts of the globe.

Now if only someone can help me read! To get to the airport in London, I boarded the first class compartment of the Gatwick Express, with an economy ticket. What a relief I could explain to her that I had been incredibly stupid! Imagine if that had happened in Berlin. I would have just played dumb! Not much different, I guess!

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