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Customer Service Etiquette with a Bit of Foreign Language on the Side

The other day my best friend and I were having a conversation about the Video Music Awards (VMAs). She mentioned that last year the artist Pitbull got slammed on twitter for speaking Spanish during his MC duties. Now, I was not aware of this because although I saw various performances on YouTube, I did not watch the awards when it aired. I got online to see if I could read some of the things that had been written about the incident. I found lots of tweets filled with people’s displeasure saying things like “Pitbull isn’t even American, why is he speaking Spanish on an American awards show?” Others were saying equally ignorant things such as, “don’t those people already have their own award show?” What took the cake for me was this quote: “English and Spanish are the top languages. I speak no Spanish because I wasn’t exposed to it. However, I want to learn their language too. Let the Spanglish flow. Sure beats Ebonics.” I couldn’t believe that someone was defending one culture that came under attack and in the same breathe was insulting another culture.

This got me to thinking about foreign language in business. What is it exactly that rubs people the wrong way when you speak a language they cannot understand? I am not pretending that I have the definitive answer but, aside from people who are just simply racist, I think most people are just reacting to their collective bad customer service experiences. We have all experienced walking into a beauty supply store, a nail salon or an ethnic restaurant only to feel uneasy and out of place. So what made us uneasy? We knew before we walked in that we would find non-native speakers. I think the issue is the quality of customer service. Customer service isn’t simply providing for the customer your services/products; it is much more than that. Customers have emotional needs; they want to feel that you care for and respect them. How can you make them feel at home in your place of business? The answer— do not be rude to your customers intentionally or unintentionally. In addition to all of the general dos and don’ts of customer service, here are several key rules of etiquette to follow when you have to navigate around two languages:

Acknowledge your customers: Greet them cordially, do not eye them suspiciously when they enter your establishment. If you do not speak the local language well and feel self-conscience about caring on a conversation, learn one or two greetings. Give them a genuine smile at the very least; a smile will go a long way. If you are busy and cannot attend to them at the moment, say so and let them know that you will be with them shortly. If you are having a personal conversation, end it and attend to your customers at once. Above all, never leave your customers thinking that you do not what to help them.

Do not discuss your customer’s/client’s issue in another language in their presence to another individual: It is rude to have a conversation with your customer and then switch languages to include another individual into the conversation. If you have to ask a fellow employee to help with your customer’s inquiry and that fellow employee does not speak your customer’s language, briefly explain to your customer that you must ask another individual and apologize for having to switch languages. Periodically stop and summarize for your customer what was said. Do not make any gesture, remark, or expression that might make the customer feel as though you are saying negative things about them.

Familiarize yourself with local customs: If your culture is different from that of your customers, you owe it to your business to get to know the culture. Knowledge of the local customs will prevent you from making mistakes and alienating your customers when dealing with them. For example, placing money on the counter shows good manners in one culture but may be seen as rude and standoffish behavior in another. Not looking someone in the eye when speaking to them is considered a sign that you respect them and are not challenging them in one culture but that you are dishonest and unsure of yourself in another.

Always Smile! You will want to make it part of your company policy to smile while you are serving your customers, especially if they are American. Americans are put off if they feel that you are not taking pleasure or pride in doing business with them.

VMA viewers, whether warranted or not, felt left out. When your customers walk away they should never feel left out. You will find that your customers do not mind that you follow your own cultural customs or that you converse in your native tongue at work. All they want from you is the benefit of your expertise, your attention, your assistance and your appreciation that they chose to conduct business with you.

Did I leave something out? Share with us your customer service experiences. What advice on customer service etiquette would you give? Please comment below.
















Americans have a love affair with all things chic and European. Don’t believe me? Let me throw a few names at you:

Louis Vuitton, Prada, Channel, Dolce & Gabbana, Mercedes, Ferrari, Lamborghini

Every American woman wishes her closet was filled with designer clothes and accessories, and every American man would be beside himself to have one of those luxury cars parked in his garage. This love affair, specifically with the French, that we inherited from the English dates back to the 16th century. It was quite fashionable for the wealthy English to take trips to France and arrange French lessons for their children. When you consider the history together with the fact that―let’s face it, English is a bit lackluster. It is not surprising to see so many people attempting to give their children and businesses exotic and interesting, French-sounding names. The problem: not everyone understands or cares to understand orthography (a way in which the words of a language is spelled). As a result, names are created with ridiculous spellings where apostrophes and accent marks are haphazardly thrown about. Please understand. Just because you put an “o” at the end of a word does not make it Spanish, and just because you put an apostrophe in a name does not make it French. Apostrophes are utilized to indicate possession (John’s car), and plurals (The Evans’ house). In English, as well as in other languages, they can also be used to indicate the omission of (a) letter(s) (do + not= don’t, Je + suis= J’suis).

The use of apostrophes in names is practiced by speakers of various languages. These constructions have survived from times long ago, when surnames were often derived from one’s place of origin (de Iberville= D’Iberville, which means from Iberville) or parentage (di Angelo= D’Angleo, Of Neal = O’Neal, which means son of Angelo and son of Neal). Accent marks are not used in English, but they are in other languages for the purposes of stressing pronunciation of vowels or to differentiate one word from another.

Many times I have watched elementary students try their very best to learn combination sounds and spelling rules only to be frustrated because the spelling of their own name does not follow the orthography rules they are being taught in school. If a student has an actual foreign name, they generally have no problem accepting the explanation that their name is from another language and therefore the rules for spelling are different. However, when someone’s name is clearly an independent creation, I am always at a loss for an explanation as to why the pronunciation of their name is spelled the way that it is.

In an effort not to offend anyone―including a few of my own relatives, I am not going to give real examples of the sort of names to which I am referring. However, as I get off of my soapbox, I would like to leave you with a bit of advice and a heartfelt request. Naming a child is a very important job; it is a decision that should not be made quickly. One must think about how this name will carry him/her through life, in all of its various stages. If you are so inclined to bestow upon your child a name of your own creation, make sure you follow orthography rules for the language you are trying to emulate.


Getting Started: A Freelance Translator

Audio Podcast Transcript

[Check back for the posting of the live interview]

RE: Hi and welcome to An Education in Translation. This is our second podcast. Today is March 19, 2014. My name is Rachel Evans and I am the educator and host behind “An education in Translation.” Today… I would like to implement a segment I like to call Career Day. And I am happy to announce that we will be talking with Janine Rhyans. She has agreed to join us from Denver Colorado by phone. Isn’t that correct Janine?

JR: Yes I have.

RE: Ok, Janine is a Spanish to English translator, and she is also a Translation Studies student at the University of Denver. So I thought that it would be a great idea for those of you out there who are interested in careers as a translator to sort of pick the brain of a translator, someone who has started the journey, on the journey, to kind of figure out what got them interested in the career.  What kinds of things that they are doing in order to become a translator? And what kinds of things do they have to deal with in their profession? So Janine, what I like to ask you is−if you don’t mind sharing with our listeners­­−how did your interest in translation develop?

JR: My interest in the translation and interpreting field developed when I was in high school. I actually had an internship with a non-profit organization that frequently used translators and interpreters, so I was able to kind of study how they worked and get a sense of, a little bit of a sense of, what the career field was like. And so also in my previous jobs, I have had the opportunity to translate informally. So when I saw that the University of Denver had a Spanish translation program; I thought that it would be a good opportunity for me to study the translation field.

RE: Ok, so what did you like best about translation, what attracted you to it?

JR: I like the challenge of translating one language to another and being able to kind of play with words. Also, I like that you have to use both of your language skills, and that it builds on my natural strengths as a writer and in research.

RE: Ok, so how would you briefly describe your language learning journey? Was it a difficult process for you, and if so, why? And what were some of the things that helped you along the way?

JR: I would say that my language journey began because I have always been fascinated with languages, and I always liked this idea to be able to communicate with a person in multiple ways. I started studying Spanish in middle school and I continued in high school, and then I decided to major in the language in college. I would say that probably one of the challenges for me was speaking, because I am naturally a quiet and shy person. And so I had to make an effort to speak.  So, I just… you know I made that effort to speak in all of my classes.

RE: Ok, so what do you want to do with your translation skills?  I know that you have a choice of working for a company (being an in-house translator) or working for yourself (being a freelance translator). I also know that you have a background in education and in accounting. So, are you interested in using your translation skills toward those things, or would you like to do something else with your skills?  

JR: Ideally I would like to work as a freelance translator and proofreader.

RE: Have you chosen a specialization, If so, what are they? And then, do you think that it is necessary to choice a specialization?

JR: The areas that I plan to specialize in are business, art and international development. I do have a background in business and accounting, and I also have strong interest in the art field and in international development. I think that it is good to specialize in translation because it helps you to focus on developing a knowledge of industry terminology. It also helps you to focus on what types of translations jobs you would like to take.

RE: Right, because there are so many options out there―

JR: Yeah

RE: You know there are so many industries that could use, you know, translation services. You know you have the medical field, the legal field, um, the business field. So it can get pretty overwhelming, so I guess narrowing down your focus, you know, would be a big help.  It will help you to be more marketable and then you can say that you mastered a particular area, that you have a particular expertise in a certain area.

JR: Yes, that is true.

RE: Ok, so what steps have you taken or will you take to reach your goal as a translator? What are some of the things that you are doing on a regular basis to meet that goal?

JR: Well, currently I am completing my program at the University of Denver. And while I have been studying, I have also been doing volunteer translating. And I have been putting together a portfolio of my translation work.  I also have started taking professional development classes in the business field, sort of more entrepreneurial classes.

RE: Ok, I think that it is really important — I am really glad you mentioned that you are putting together a portfolio… And that you are putting together a focused resume, a professional resume and things like that because sometimes when you are in school — sometimes people don’t tell you these things and

JR: Right—

RE: when you are done with your degree, you get out there and you do not know why you are not getting jobs. You are just — you are clueless and I think that it is helpful to hear somebody say; ok you need to be working on this. You need to be doing this. And that can help you reach your goal sooner.

JR: That is true.

RE: So if you have already taken steps, which obviously you have. We have just got through talking about those. Are you finding the process difficult? And if so, what are the challenges that you are running into?

JR: I think anytime you start something new the process is difficult, so you just have to take things in small steps. And also for me―because I work full-time―it is also finding the time every day to do something to work on my goal.

RE: Right, right. So what would the ideal translation career look like for you? If you could um you know put together where you want to see yourself in five or ten years, what would your job look like?

JR: I think the ideal career probably initially would be to work uh part-time as a translator.  But then long-term, I would definitely like to work full-time as a freelance translator.

RE: Ok, and uh I would imagine that your long-term goal, that you said, is to work full-time as a translator.  Is there anything else that you would like to add to your skill?  Would you like to add an additional specialization, or do you feel comfortable with the specializations that you have already chosen?

JR: I think for right now I just I kind of want to focus on those three, but yeah, maybe in the future I would definitely be interested in learning more.

RE: Ok and what advice would you give to both school-aged students and college students who might be contemplating a career in translation? What would you tell them?

JR: I would say to research the field, the translation and interpreting field. And maybe talk to professional translators and interpreters to find out what their education background is, what their career path was. I would also say; you know if you want, you can start to volunteer for different non-profit organizations as a translator or an interpreter. I would just say; you know just go for it.

RE: Ok, thank you so much. Now

JR: Thank you.

RE: If you would like to learn more about Janine’s experiences and the things she has to deal with as a translation studies student and as a rising translator; you can follow her on her blog. Janine if you would share with us where we could go to read your blog and any other places on social media that you may be.

JR: My blog is called, and I am also on twitter Janinetranslates.

RE: Ok, thank you so much Janine and to all of our listeners out there.  I hope that this was helpful to you and I just want to say; good luck to all your future endeavors.

JR: Thank you for having me.

RE: Your welcome, thank you.

“Speech is external thought, and thought internal speech.”


This article is the second in the “Four Modes of Language Learning” series and will primarily deal with ways to improve speaking skills. In my opinion speaking and listening might be the most challenging out of all the others to master. The reason being is that an immediate response time is required. If you want to work as an interpreter or acquire native fluency for professional reasons your speaking ability must be fully developed. On the other hand, when you write (a translator’s task) you have the luxury of collecting your thoughts, rereading passages or revising sentences. Although seemingly nonexistent, skills required for speaking and writing are different.  Many language service professionals have perfected the individual skills necessary to successfully work as both a Translator and an Interpreter. However complimentary, they are distinct professions that should not be viewed as one in the same. Take into consideration the music Industry, there are many singers who are also musicians but it should not be assumed that all singers can play a musical instrument. Let us take it further; is it fair to say that all musicians can dance professionally to the music they create? Certainly not!

So, how can one improve speaking skills? Practice, practice, practice; your response time will get better the more time you spend thinking in your new language. However, this can prove to be more challenging for language learners who are not constantly around native speakers. Try utilizing the internet for help. Join Skype conversation groups and insist upon speaking in your new language when you encounter natives of that language. When you think out loud or silently to yourself—do it in [insert language here]. It is not good enough to simply recall vocabulary and grammar rules when responding in your new language. At this point, words are only speech and do not have genuine meaning.  One must begin to think as a native speaker would. Learning a new language is not as simple as replacing a word with its translated equivalent. Rather, it is learning to see things from a different point of view. This is why it is impossible to learn a new language without also learning about the culture. We must begin to understand how they see the world. The key is to start thinking like a native speaker. Nineteenth century French writer, Antoine de Rivarol showed he understood the difference between knowing words and understanding the process of thought when he profoundly wrote “speech is external thought, and thought internal speech.”  Thinking in your new language—to the point to where you are dreaming in that language— will serve as proof that you are becoming a master at speaking.

Be Sure To Take Your Supplements Next Term!







For many years the popular concept of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic (the three Rs) was sufficient in preparing students for the work force.  As the industrial aged turned into the information age the required skills needed for the work force naturally changed with it. Due to advance technology, many careers and jobs today also require a creative component.  Academic courses that help develop creative skills such as foreign language are often classified as electives.  Unfortunately, electives carry a stigma of being less than and not as important as core courses.

As a translator and an educator, I certainly would love to see more people earn their living using their language skills. A large percentage of job announcements list speaking a foreign language as a desired skill or a requirement to qualify for a position. If you plan on being a worthy competitor in the national and global job market: learn a second language.

As a high school or college student you may have already decided on a career.  However, in our competitive society there are many others who aspire to have the same careers as you do. How then can you set yourself apart from the rest? What could you offer that others do not have? Do not underestimate the power of supplementary skills. Stop and consider this; every industry has a use for language services. As a language service provider you can work in any industry that you choose. Examine the following chart for possible linguistic careers in an industry that interests you.



Specialized Area of Translation/Interpretation

Job Description



Military Language Specialist

Cultural Specialist

Military Linguist

Interpret for the UN, interpret during political negotiations or serve as a code breaker for military intelligence. (You can potentially earn six figures if you can speak an unpopular language spoken in political hotspots)
Law Legal Translator

Legal Interpreter

Interpret and/or translate for court, Police departments and law offices.
Medical Medical Interpreter

Medical Translator

Interpret for patients who are English limited proficient. Translate medical brochures/journals.
Entertainment Transcriptionist



Voice-over Artist


Translate transcripts from audio and video. Write captions and subtitles for TV, Movies, and video games. Do voice-overs for commercials , TV and Movies.
Computers & Technology Website Translator Provide website translation and localization services.
Education Translator


Foreign Language Teacher

Translate educational materials, interpret for students and/or parents who are English limited proficient, Teach ESL or a foreign language at any level of education.
Business Technical Translator

Business Translator

Business Interpreter

Cultural Consultant

Translate owner/instructional manuals and product labels. Write correspondence or interpret at business meetings/conferences calls, translate/transcreate intellectual property (Ads or music lyrics). Serve as a consultant on international marketing campaigns.


I encourage all college and college bound students to put more thought into their elective choices. Even if you are not interested in providing language services as your primary focus, do not let this deter you from achieving fluency. Just as vitamin supplements can help replace what has been lost or fill in what has been missing from one’s diet, so can supplementing your career with marketable skills to ensure longevity and success.  As you decide on what courses to take for next term; remember, do not forget to take your supplements.

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