August, 2014

PalmLing, Insuring Against Language Barriers

Published on October, 2011 by in Asia-Pacific

If Kunal Sarda and Ryan Frankel succeed, language barriers will never be an issue when traveling abroad, so long as a phone is available.

Sarda, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Frankel, who graduates from Wharton this May, are cofounders of PalmLing, a service that provides international travelers with phone-based access to live translators, anytime, anywhere from any phone. PalmLing will soon offer English-Chinese, English-Hindi and English-Spanish translation services to international travelers not only in China, Latin America, or the United States, but practically anywhere.

Sarda and Frankel are no strangers to language as a barrier when traveling abroad. “I got off the train station in Paris and took a cab back to my hotel,” recounts Sarda, who speaks English, Spanish, Hindi, and Urdu, but very little French. “The driver did not read any English, and I had no one to talk to at the hotel front desk. Two and a half hours later, I ended up at the wrong spot, with a very frustrated cab driver, and no money to pay him.”

Frankel’s experience in China highlights just how critical accurate translation can be. “I became ill and in need of medication. I made my way to a pharmacy, where the pharmacist did not speak English, nor did she understand the name of the medication that I needed.”  Frankel discovered that even an address written in Mandarin was not enough to assure seamless return to the hotel. Although Chinese, the taxi driver could not read Mandarin. “I struggled home on foot.”

Sarda and Frankel hope PalmLing will help international travelers avoid situations like these. According to PalmLing’s website, up to 40% of international travelers experience critical situations where they can’t communicate because of a language barrier. “We consider PalmLing to be insurance for when it’s critical to get the conversation going, for example if you are at a restaurant and are allergic and want to make sure that the waiter doesn’t get that wrong,” says Sarda, who also holds an MS in Engineering. “Especially if you travel a bit, there is almost a false confidence where you think that the few phrases that you have are sufficient to get them through most situations.”

A travel guide or a phone app are enough for the average traveler until a critical situation occurs. “Our biggest challenge has been creating awareness amongst the traveler community that there is a high-quality and cost-effective solution to navigating barriers of language communication,” says Sarda.

PalmLing’s service relies on translators who are on call to translate on behalf of travelers requiring assistance. “For the Chinese service, we are recruiting students and professionals alike who have spare time both in China and in the US,” explains Sarda. These translators, who possess a fluency level in the target language, are connected to travelers through a proprietary technology developed by the company – a crowdsourced virtual call center – that allows two parties to be connected regardless of where they are in the world. The Company employs a rigorous translator testing system to ensure that only the highest quality translators gain entry into the PalmLing translator community.

As a new concept, insurance against foreign language barriers is a concept that will have to be sold to the international traveler. Once completed,  the potential could be huge for a company like PalmLing. “We haven’t even started to scratch the surface,” admits Sarda. One offering the company is considering is Hindi-English translation, which would serve travelers in India. “The Indian market is more complicated because you’re talking about 50 languages across the entire subcontinent.” Other language pairings could include Chinese-Spanish translation. “People fluent in Mandarin and Spanish are very hard to come by. That said, these people are out there, and eventually we will be fortunate to have them as translators,” says Sarda.

By PalmLing’s account, the United States market alone is comprised of over 40 million travelers. However, accounting for the universe of English-speaking international tourists, the potential is larger. According to statistics from China’s National Tourism Administration, during the first half of 2011, United States travelers comprise just under 10% of foreign tourists entering China. English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and Canada represented another 10% of foreign travelers entering China.

PalmLing hopes that travelers like these will enter China with the peace of mind that language will not become an impediment to living a rich cultural experience. Frankel is no stranger to matching parties – he previously founded an organization that matches high school athletes to academic programs. “It’s exciting to see the degree to which travelers feel more comfortable taking trips and maximizing their time overseas with the added insurance of PalmLing,” concludes Frankel.

Leonardo Navarro

Leonardo Navarro has worked in Taipei and Beijing, via Mexico City, in the public and private sector. He is a regular contributor for Kapital Privado, a blog on private equity in emerging markets, and editor of JustTellMeWhereToGo, a guide of restaurant recommendations for travelers, by travelers. He holds Wharton MBA and an MA in East Asia and Mandarin Chinese from the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently works in corporate finance in New York. Follow Leonardo on Twitter.