To provide quality telephone interpreting services to organisations dealing with vulnerable members of society.
The idea for Language Line occurred to Michael Young during a visit to his local hospital in East London. He noticed that a large number of patients of South Asian origin had difficulty communicating with medical staff because they spoke very little English. Ad hoc interpreters, such as other patients or cleaners, could sometimes be found, but otherwise patients were asked to return on a day when a professional interpreter could be present. None of these arrangements was entirely satisfactory, leading Young to think of alternative solutions of providing an efficient means of communication between patients and staff. Idea Young’s idea was to provide free quality telephone interpreting to organisations dealing with non English-speaking clients from vulnerable groups. Language Line pioneered telephone interpreting in the UK in 1990, and their services have since developed around the ethos: ‘To improve the quality of life for all non-English speakers in the UK by removing all language and communication barriers for every interaction with business and public services.’
Implementation - Young secured a small amount of government grant funding to test the concept and Language Line was established as a charity initially offering services in four languages. The interpreters, who were home workers and often from the same communities as the non-English speakers, were paid to ensure their availability. In its earliest form, the service was very basic – the telephone handset was simply passed between doctor and patient and the interpreter translated what was said. There were very few similar initiatives in existence at the time, and because no special equipment was required, the initial service could be established very quickly. The service was an instant success, and was soon in use across the NHS, as well as other public sector organisations including local authority housing departments, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Police, and the Ambulance Service. By the early 1990s, Language Line was fully operational with eight members of staff and 50 part-time interpreters, and was providing interpretation services for around 15 foreign languages.
Scaling Up - It wasn’t long before the initial grant expired, and in order to ensure that the service remained sustainable, Language Line had to stop operating as a charity and establish itself on a proper commercial footing. Young asked Andrew Karney, an experienced business consultant, to become chairman of the company with the mandate to grow the service as rapidly as possible and to ensure that it would not require further grant aid. Karney recruited an experienced CEO and expanded Language Line to cover more languages and offer its services to other government agencies and commercial users throughout the country. Charges were increased substantially, a professional management team was put in place, and automation was introduced. All of these measures proved cost-effective and improved the quality of the service. In the mid 1990s, Language Line moved out of their original premises in Bethnal Green and took on a fresh identity. The company expanded the number of languages on offer to more than 100 (even though 80 percent of the call volumes utilised 20 percent of the languages). This was a necessary shift as the language mix was constantly changing. Languages like Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu gradually declined as a percentage of the whole, while the changing geopolitical scene created the need for interpretation services in Kurdish, Albanian, Arabic, Farsi and Polish. The growth placed strain on the recruitment of telephone interpreters and in response, Language Line set up a training programme in conjunction with London-based universities. It also entered into agreements with US and Australian interpreting services to swap traffic and manage increased demand and usage more effectively. This economy of scale also enabled the company to gradually reduce tariffs, particularly for those clients least able to afford the service. Language Line made further investment in the telephony systems, accounting and billing to efficiently handle the 1.5 million minutes of interpretation they were getting every year. By 1998 the company was still largely owned by the Institute of Community Studies and the Mutual Aid Centre (organisations that preceded the Young Foundation), and to raise funds for other projects they looked to sell part or all of Language Line.
In 1999 Language Line was sold to a management buyout backed by venture capitalists for £4 million. Demand for the service increased due to the rise in asylum seekers arriving in the UK escaping the Balkan crisis. The new backers could provide funds to meet the changing demand, and a decision was also made to open a subsidiary of the company in Germany. The company split its brand into Language Line for public sector divisions and Comunicado for the commercial sector. The move to Germany was not successful and the operation was eventually shut down in 2001. This failure can partly be explained by Language Line’s assumption that the initiative would work in Germany based simply on the strong ethnic minority presence there. Unfortunately, research into the German marketplace was inadequate. Moreover, the market never developed because many client organisations took the view that asylum seekers should learn German before requesting assistance from the public sector. The start-up costs of the operation in Germany and its subsequent failure instigated a re-examination of aspects of Language Line’s business. At this point it was felt that people with stronger business experience were required to replace some of the staff that had performed well within a small enterprise, but were less suited to take the company forward. Venture capital backing required growth and expansion and this added impetus to the restructuring process and reworking of the old value system. With a new management structure in place and by concentrating on the core product of telephone interpreting while also moving into new areas of translation and face-to-face interpreting, Language Line was able to stabilise the business and clear its debts. By 2003 the original venture capitalists had overseen a growth of 250 percent, with profits trebling, and successfully sold Language Line in a venture capitalist-backed management buyout for £15 million. 2006 saw a second buyout from ARBY Partners, a major American company. This move brought the organisation significant advantages in the UK including access to better technology, the opportunity to make use of the parent company’s marketing department and resources, and the ability to present themselves as a global company with interests in Canada and Australia. Challenges With rapid growth and diversification, the ability to recruit, retain and develop the right staff, became a major challenge for the company. Language Line now has a healthy training budget in place, but in the past suffered a high attrition rate in senior management throughout the company's constant re-evaluation and growth. The failure in Germany and the mixed success of sales to the commercial sector highlighted the need for management re-structuring, a new business ethos and proper market research.