Bilingual vs. professional interpreter. LanguageLine. We understand the hard work that it takes to learn a second language. It’s absolutely fantastic and essential, in our global world, to be able to communicate in more than one language. But language skills can vary greatly, and the fact that you’re bilingual does not automatically make you an interpreter.

The Benefits of Being Bilingual

Knowing a second language well enough to get the gist of what someone is saying and being able to reply to them intelligently requires a lot of work and a great deal of time. Once it’s accomplished, you need to keep using the skill or, like any other skill, it will get rusty. This level of language proficiency will be sufficient for most of the standard, everyday situations and conversations you may find yourself engaged in. 

After all, being bi- or multilingual means that you can converse fairly easily with most native speakers of different languages during routine conversations using standard vocabulary. So, if you want to become a citizen of the world, expand your horizons, and travel with greater confidence, learning another language is definitely worth the effort, and we highly recommend it. 

The Key Differences Between Being Bilingual and Being a Professional Interpreter

However, professional interpreters have accomplished a level of bilingual fluency far beyond what the average bilingual individual would ever need.

They not only learn to speak and understand the language with perfect fluency, at an educated native speaker level, they also delve deep into the culture behind the language. They understand the deep meaning of silences surrounding the words, the hints to meaning hidden in voice inflection, and the importance of other non-verbal cues that the average bilingual individual will overlook.

In addition, they’re trained to provide – not just a basic explanation of what someone is saying – but a complete and accurate interpretation of exactly what the individual is saying meaning-for-meaning, with all the flavor and emotion of the original statement. Doing so requires exceptional listening skills, concentration, note-taking skills, multitasking ability, and a profound empathy for the other  parties involved in the interpreting session.

Many professional interpreters are also trained to handle highly specialized interpreting situations requiring complex vocabulary with nuanced meanings that the average bilingual individual would never need to know, such as medical interpreters, or those interpreting for the legal profession or in the financial industry.

And we can’t discount the impact that high stress, trauma, and other factors can have on how difficult an interpreting session can become. That’s why professionals called on to interpret 911 calls are trained to be better than the average bilingual person. They receive specific training relative to legal and medical terminology, stress management, and participate in practice sessions simulating typical 911 call scenarios.

Why Does the Difference Really Matter, Anyway?

If you trust an average bilingual individual to interpret on behalf of your customers, guests, or patients, you’re simply not offering LEP individuals the best possible service and care available. In some circumstances, it may work fine, but in sensitive or personal situations, it could cause you to lose business or impact the care or service that you’re offering, which could have far more serious consequences for all involved.

About LanguageLine®

LanguageLine has been the world leader in innovative language-access solutions since 1982. The company sets the global standard for phone, video, and onsite interpreting, as well as translation of the written word. LanguageLine is trusted by more than 30,000 clients to enable communication with the limited English proficient, Deaf, and Hard of Hearing communities. LanguageLine provides the industry’s fastest and most dependable access to more than 35,000 professional linguists in 290-plus languages — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Please do not hesitate to contact us

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