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Tips for Avoiding Communication Barriers in China

BOSTON) July 23, 2008 – As final preparations for the 2008 Olympics are underway, travelers to the country where 235 languages are spoken are busy purchasing pocket translators, dictionaries, and more. Nataly Kelly, a senior analyst at business globalization and language services industry research firm, outlines five key tips for preventing communication barriers when traveling to China for the Olympics.

1. Take along a pocket-sized interpreter for communication in real time.

• Several companies offer pre-paid or pay-as-you-go calling cards that enable you to access an interpreter via telephone within a matter of seconds. Having one of these cards on hand offers reassurance that if you need to, you can communicate with anyone, so long as you have a phone nearby.

• Other companies, such as China One Call and China Help Line, can connect travelers with an interpreter instantly – and there is no need to carry a card. Individuals simply call and request an interpreter via telephone.

2. Schedule an escort interpreter or a bilingual guide.

• There are 235 languages spoken in China. Thankfully for travelers, interpreters for Mandarin Chinese should be able to help you in most settings, since this is the official language of the People’s Republic of China.

• If you will be interacting with many individuals or for extensive periods where English may not be spoken, consider booking an escort interpreter to accompany you during the day.

• Escort interpreters are usually paid by the day, or in some cases, by the hour.

• Some travel agencies in China provide bilingual guides who may also be able to help communicate and provide some informal interpreting services.

• For more formal settings, such as business discussions or medical appointments, it is best to contract with a professional interpreter instead of a guide. Some interpreting agencies in China specialize in providing interpreters on a short-term contract basis.

3. Be mindful of cultural communication barriers too.

• Many travelers booked Olympic tickets with their first and last names only, not realizing that in China, the name on the passport must be identical to the name on Olympic tickets. A guide or interpreter may be able to help you better navigate difficult or confusing situations such as this.

• The color orange is a symbol of protest in China over human rights violations. Unaware tourists wearing this color can attract unwanted attention from local authorities.

• The Chinese government reacts swiftly and firmly to riots and demonstrations, and will do so especially during the Olympic games. Avoid any large crowds that gather in what looks like a protest. Orange shirts and signs may be a good indication.

• Ask for the menu in Chinese as well as English. In some cases, prices may be different (higher) on English menus than on local menus in Chinese.

4. Write up your mini-medical history – in Chinese.

• Consider writing up a brief description of any diseases and serious health conditions, along with a list of any allergies and names as well as descriptions of prescription medications that you take regularly.

• If you become ill and need to see a doctor, or if you need to replace a medication, having this important information on hand can be life-saving. Having it available in Chinese will ensure that everyone – nurses, doctors and emergency medical staff alike – can understand your health information.

• Get a translation from a qualified translator or translation agency at home, prior to leaving for your trip. Do not rely on automated or machine translation for critical medical information such as this. U.S.-based travelers can find translators through the American Translators Association online directory, or by contracting with a translation agency.

• Make sure to specify that you want the translation into Simplified Chinese, which is the written form used in Mainland China.

5. Consider pre-translating other important information.

• Many cities in China are enormous, and even native taxi drivers may not always be familiar with every destination. Consider printing out a map before you go that clearly highlights key locations and landmarks so that you can get to your destination with minimal difficulty. You may also want to learn how to pronounce the name of your hotel and the nearest landmark in Mandarin, so that you easily tell someone where it is you are trying to go.

• After you arrive, many hotels will give you a card with the name of the hotel in Chinese and English, so that you can show it to drivers and others as needed. You may be able to obtain the hotel name in both languages from the hotel website, and print out copies for everyone in your party prior to leaving.

• If you have any special dietary needs, be sure to translate these in advance. Whether you need to say, “I am allergic to peanuts,” or “I am diabetic and need a drink that contains no sugar,” you can get these phrases translated in advance, and simply show them to the waiter or waitress.

• You may also wish to have other phrases translated in advance, such as “Is there access for a person in a wheelchair?” or “Is there a child safety seat?”

• Phrasebooks with pre-translated sentences and phonetic pronunciation guides may also be helpful. If you use these tools, just be sure to give yourself time to learn the pronunciation guide, and if possible, to practice beforehand with a video, or CD. Many Westerners find it difficult to pronounce Mandarin, so be sure to practice in advance to avoid any miscommunication.

Nataly Kelly is a senior analyst at business globalization and language services research firm, Common Sense Advisory. To schedule an interview or reprint permissions, please contact Melissa Gillespie at Melissa@commonsenseadvisory.com

Submitted On: 1/11/2011

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