Conversation is impossible if no one speaks the same language, especially when the only means of communication is a plain old telephone. Rule out non–verbal means of communication such as gestures or drawings, and nothing remains but silence.
Or more precisely, conversation was impossible with such a language barrier.
This week, Israeli startup Lexifone launched a real–time interpretation service that promises to allow any two people speaking different languages to have an effective conversation through a phone call, using any kind of telephone, at a low cost.
“Only five percent of the world’s population” speaks English, and “if you count English as a second language then it’s up to 10 percent,” explained Itay Sagie, co-founder and vice president of sales at Lexifone, based in Haifa, Israel. “In Brazil, 95 percent of people don’t speak English. Russia 95 [percent], and China it’s 99.6 [percent]. But Lexifone does any mixture of languages. It doesn’t have to be English to something else.”
The service works this way: After registering with an e–mail address and password and a phone number from which outgoing calls will be made, at the Lexifone website, the user then specifies a native language and a foreign language. The foreign language will be the one everyone who is called will hear, unless a different language is specified on a per–call basis. Finally, to engage in an interpreted conversation, the user calls a local Lexifone access phone number and then punches in the destination phone number to be called (the “callout number”). The Lexifone system recognizes the originating phone number registered to the user’s account and sets up the call for the chosen language translation. For those times when calls are made from a different originating phone number than the one registered to the user’s account, Lexifone assigns an authentication code that identifies the caller instead — and this code also can be personalized in the user’s account settings online.
Once connected to the callout number, Lexifone announces the incoming caller in the specified foreign language, and then gives the caller the first opportunity to speak in his or her native language.
When the caller stops speaking, the system interprets the caller’s statement and repeats it in the foreign language, using a computer–generated voice. Following this, the caller then has the choice of continuing to speak or giving the other party an opportunity to reply in the foreign language.
In turn, that reply will be interpreted by the system and repeated back to the caller in his or her native language.
Normally, interpretation and repetition takes between two and three seconds per statement, Sagie said.
A user selectable “confirmation mode” directs the system to repeat what it heard and gives an opportunity for correction before starting the interpretation. It can be turned on or off by the user with a couple of keystrokes on the phone’s dial pad, or will be proactively initiated by Lexifone if the system does not understand what it heard. This is a valuable feature for business usage, Sagie noted — for example, to be certain that “$60,000” is not misinterpreted as “$50,000” during a price negotiation.
In fact, small businesses are an important target market for Lexifone, Sagie said, adding that the company set its prices with this in mind. “Small businesses that could never afford a human interpreter on the line, which is the only alternative for us, can now afford this service,” he said.
Costs range from 15 cents per minute to 40 cents per minute, inclusive of talking time and translation. Specific prices vary with the Lexifone subscription plans, which themselves range from $10 or $20 pre-paid to $200 per month.
In addition to this “CallOut” translation function, Lexifone also offers a “CallMe” option to interpret incoming phone calls. The option dedicates a unique access number for other people to call the user, and “each number is a certain language pair,” Sagie explained. So, for instance, an English–speaking sales person in the U.S. could get a dedicated Lexifone access number in France that would accept calls from Francophones there, and calls to that number would trigger translation between English and French. A CallMe phone number costs $10 per month extra.
A simple translation function for face–to–face conversations also is available to Lexifone subscribers. It starts and ends with a call to the local access number (eschewing dial–out to another phone number).
Simple phone calls without any translation can be made through the local access number, too. The price per minute depends on the country being called. Calls to U.S. phone numbers are the least expensive at 1.5 cents per minute.
All new users are credited $1.25 by Lexifone to try the service without incurring any initial cost.
While it’s possible to use Lexifone from any old–fashioned telephone, smartphone access is easiest. A free Lexifone app for Android, available now, offers the CallOut, simple translation and outgoing call functions enumerated above, plus allows a different foreign language to be assigned to each person in the phone’s Contacts list. Sagie said a Lexifone iPhone app is expected to be available by July.
Although it was developed in Israel, one language Lexifone does not currently work with is Hebrew. The service now pairs any combination of English (in U.S., U.K. or Australian dialects), French (in European or Canadian dialects), German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese (in European or Brazilian dialects), Russian, and Spanish (in European or Mexican dialects).
More languages, including Arabic and Japanese, are expected to be added soon.