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Talk to Me

For this airline employee, fluency across languages translates to great customer service


WHERE INTERPRETER MIGUEL VELASQUEZ grew up, in Santiago de Chuco, Peru, learning more than one language was inevitable. He spoke Spanish at home, watched Brazilian television stations that broadcast in Portuguese and acquired German to converse with some friends from Europe. Once he had three languages in his repertoire, he was hooked. He added English and French for fun.

Learning new languages comes easily to Velasquez, but he also loves the extra cultural awareness that accompanies it. For example, he explains, “you can understand Portuguese if you speak Spanish, but there’s a cultural difference.” Choosing a career in the travel industry gave him a way to explore the cultures that lent their richness to the languages he knew.

Velasquez first worked for an Italian cruise line, which hired him because he knew English. He learned Italian to move into desktop publishing for the company, but he didn’t intend to settle there. “I always wanted to move on and improve what I know,” he says. “I wanted to be more proficient, so I bought books and tapes and I worked at it.” He also gained fluency in other languages along the way: Russian, Hebrew, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

Velasquez moved to the United States to study at the University of Houston, where he earned degrees in business management, marketing, Chinese, French and Russian. He then began working at United’s hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, because an international airline seemed a natural fit for a man who knew 10 languages.

“Look at the last names of the passengers. How many English last names do you see?” he asks. “It’s about customer service and using people who understand the culture. Brazil, together with China and India, is becoming a powerful country. A lot of Brazilians do speak English, but many do not. But I am here; I speak the language.”

While Velasquez acts as an official interpreter of French and Spanish for United, his co-workers know they can depend on him for assistance with any of the other languages he speaks. He’s been called while off-duty to interpret for Japanese- and Chinese-speaking passengers who flew in late from Los Angeles, and he’s been pulled away from a dinner break to interpret for paramedics called to help Russian-speaking passengers.

But Velasquez says he likes to remind people that “if you want to use me to translate, I want to translate something positive. I don’t want to just translate problems — I’m looking for the solution.” He goes on to clarify, “It’s not just about languages; it’s about other skills, such as ticketing and gate management and international travel requirements. It’s about understanding the people you deal with — their cultures and what makes them who they are. That is a large part of learning what you need to know.”

That knowledge, he says, leads to the most satisfying result of all his work spent acquiring languages. “When [passengers] look at you and they know you are the only one who can speak their language and this is their first time in another country, my heart melts. That’s the rewarding part of my job. There’s a reason why I learned these languages.”

When not at work, Velasquez enjoys exploring the world, where his skills help him feel at home in any city. But he also likes to search out a little of his roots during his travels. “I always go to Latin clubs wherever I am, because there’s no way you can be in a bad mood when you are at a Latin club,” he says. “You just can’t feel bad trying to dance salsa.”

One Response to “Talk to Me”

  1. Beatriz Lauer Says:
    January 14th, 2012 at 7:59 am

    Congratulations to Miguel Velazquez.
    This man goes to my list of “inspirational people”.

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