Monday, November 10, 2008

Multilingual Issues in Airports

Airport culture has changed dramatically since the early twentieth century. Technology has enabled drastic growth in economic air travel. From more sophisticated security systems to more efficient ways to process million of travelers through self-service kiosks. Since self-service kiosks have been adopted by all airlines, travelers can now attain boarding passes and check-in quicker than before. Airport culture has evolved in a number of ways except when it comes to communicating with passengers. English is a dominant language across the world, but it has become so by neglecting to communicate in international languages. Because of our global ties, there should be a respect for international travelers coming to America.

English as a dominant language

English has become the dominant language of the world. According to Seth Mydans, in his article Across all cultures, English says it all, one-fourth of the world’s population speaks English either casually or fluently. It is critical to speak English in foreign countries, and is usually a job requirement. Mydan quotes Mark Warshauer, professor of education at University of California, “It’s gotten to the point where almost in any part of the world to be educated means to know English.” Eighty percent of the world’s web information is in English. “By the most common estimates, 400 million people speak English as a first language, another 300 million to 500 million as a fluent second language and perhaps 750 million as a foreign language.” “The largest English-speaking nation in the world, the United States, has only about 20 percent of the world's English speakers.” America is also suffering in language education. Compared to other countries, Americans are not as proficient in language.

Delta accommodates to Latin American travelers

Companies such as Delta are introducing initiatives to cater to international travelers, but in this case failed to translate correctly. Delta has added Spanish language self-service kiosks available in U.S airports and Puerto Rico. Since 2005, Delta has expanded its flights to Latin America and the Caribbean-adding more than 60 flights to 58 destinations in the region. The addition of Multilanguage kiosks will ensure Delta is catering to the needs of the Spanish speaking population. As a result of Delta Air Lines expansion to accommodate to Latin American markets, complaints have arisen about translations in signage. At Hartsfield Airport, arguments started over the Spanish translation for “gate”. Delta used “Salida”, which translates to “exit”. Words lost in translation or translated incorrectly can create confusion for international travelers. Another issue was an inconsistency between the use of “toilet” and “restroom”.

Where Austin-Bergstrom stands

In a local study in Austin Bergstrom International Airport I had the privilege of talking to some of the staff that employ the ticketing counters and self-service check in kiosks. I went through each airline interested in the customer usability, convenience, and language options. America Airlines had four languages available; English, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Pete Patterson, Customer Service Manager for American Airlines says most travelers are familiar with self-service check in kiosks but it can be intimidating for first time users and the elderly not familiar with the technology and interface. He says that new users feel uncomfortable with swiping their debit or credit card because they think they might be charged. Also, when the kiosk requires the customer to swipe their passport, they are often confused by where they must swipe. United Airlines had ten languages available; English, French, Spanish, Deutsh, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese. U.S. Airways had only had English and Spanish as a language option. Jet Blue surprisingly only had English. Jet blue employee, Susanna Gonzalez said it was not a problem since almost everyone knows how to read and speak English. She says that most of the staff can communicate in Spanish, which is the second language in demand at Austin Bergstrom. Continental Airlines had ten languages available including English, French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Deutsch, Greek. Southwest had either English or Spanish. Delta had English, Spanish, and French. Some airlines had the kiosks right in front of the ticket lines and others had then in an aisle separate from the check in counter. Delta representative said that some traveler’s prefer assistance while using the Self-check in because they are afraid they might type in the wrong information. He went on by saying that because the self service check in kiosks are located in the ticket counter that a representative is always there but the customer is not forced to talk to him or her if not necessary. He continued by saying that it is a self-service and technology age resulting in people are walking around with their I-pods and sitting with their laptops, just wanting to go through without speaking to anyone. Mark Gottdiener questions this isolation in airports in “Deterrorialisation and the Airport” asking, “Could the airport be creating the uncaring, detached, self contained individual armed with laptop, walkman, credit cards, cellular phone, palm pilot, and business agenda?” In effect I can understand why self service check in kiosks have been developed to provide more and more do it yourself options.

From the first screen of the kiosks I noticed that most except for United Airlines did not have language options on the first screen. United Airlines had a list of ten languages on their first screen while the rest, for example the Delta Self service kiosk has two small rectangular boxes with Spanish as an option and then other languages. In order to accommodate to International travelers the language option should be on the first screen. The selection language boxes are also too small, which can easily cause problems for the elderly.
Languages available in other airports

During my research I was interested in knowing what languages are available, specifically in International Airports. Seattle Tacoma International Airport has seen a sixteen percent increase in international traffic since 2007, which has increased demand for their phone translation service. Airport translation phones are located in 22 immigration booths and in the main terminal and baggage-claim areas. The service is run by California based Language Line Services, which employs 3,000 translators for 170 languages. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has the highest percentage of Self Service use, has staff and volunteers that speak about 70 languages. Boston Logon International Airport’s Massachusetts Port Authority Interpreter Program started in 1974. The staff speaks 20 languages; Arabic, Cantonese, Creole, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Miami International Airport has translators available for Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Creole. If the language is not available, there is a special service where they call for a translator for the language needed. Houston International Airport has multilingual special service representatives that speak more than 20 different languages. They assist arriving international travelers at the US customs and Border Protection processing section.

U.S Customs and Border Protection

The airport is the first place foreigner’s experience. The first people that foreign traveler’s interact with are the Customs Border Protection Officers, who according to the job qualifications, are not required to be bilingual or have any language training. Obviously, going through customs for a citizen is much faster than if you are a visitor. First you have to get in the correct line, then you must proceed to answer a series of questions, to an intense bag search, This is usually confusing and disorienting for a U.S passenger, imagine doing this in a language you are not quite fluent in? The customs procedure can be intimidating especially for foreign visitors because of the rules, regulations, and consequences.

Airport kiosks & language options in the future

So what can we expect from self-service kiosks in the future? Research by technology company Amadeus and marketing firm Henley Centre shows kiosks will eventually allow the travelers to control every aspect of their flight. For example, passengers will be able to change their itineraries and gain access to airport maps in order to prevent disorientation and confusion in airports. Customers will also be able to control their flight experience, from seat selection to food and entertainment. Speech technology might even replace the touch screen and it would be available in several languages.

As a result of English becoming a dominant language, airport language options are not a priority. Travelers are almost expected to know how to speak English when they come in to the country. Other countries facilitate to the United States because it is a requirement to speak English. From my experience in Europe, most people can communicate or understand two to three languages. I do think English serves as a unifying language, but it doesn’t encourage Americans to learn a different language. I wonder if this creates less of an appreciation for diversity. In order to provide effective communication and language services, one must understand the difficulty of being in an environment where the language spoken is not your native language. Sufficient languages services are available, but it is always a more complicated and confusing procedure for foreign travelers.

Works Cited:

American Airlines Website.

Altanta Hartsfield Website.

Boston Logan International Airport.

Continental Airlines Website.

"Delta Launches Spanish-Language Kiosks for Growing International Customer Base." Globe Newswire. 6 Mar. 2007. .

Delta Website. http://|1291824848&noflash=true

Gottdiener, Mark. "Deterritorialisation and the Airport." The Cybercities Reader. Routledge, 2004. 1-444.

Houston International Website.

Miami International Website.

Mydans, Seth. "Across all cultures, English says it all." The International Herald Tribune 10 Apr. 2008.

"Sloppy Spanish Translation at Airports." Weblog post. WLSTranslations. 9 Oct. 2007. .

Yu, Roger. "Airport Check-In: Atlanta Leads in Web, Kiosk use; new at JFK." USA Today 20 Oct. 2008.

Yu, Roger. "Airport Check-In: In translation, on arrival." USA Today 28 July 2008.

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