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TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - When a group of Chinese illegal immigrants were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol in southern Arizona late last month, the challenge for the arresting officers was how to talk to them.
"As an agent I don't speak Chinese, so it's very hard. Usually, the only word they understand is 'passport,'" Border Patrol agent Mike Reilly said of the eight migrants nabbed on November 24 near the border town of Sasabe.
Like a growing number of clients -- from U.S. law enforcement agencies and the courts to hospitals and financial services firms -- the agency reached out to an interpretation service to help make themselves heard through the Babel of an increasingly polyglot world.
To pierce the barrier of incomprehension the duty agents processing the Chinese nationals put in a call to Language Line Services, the largest of several U.S.-based firms offering on-demand interpretation either by telephone or on site, around the clock.
The California-based firm has 5,200 interpreters on hand speaking 176 languages, from relatively common tongues such as Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Polish and Vietnamese to several more obscure dialects spoken by some African tribes and even Mayan villagers from Mexico.
The firm helps clients swiftly evaluate what language the individual speaks -- either using a trained operator or language ID cards. Often, Language Line and other rival firms manage to put an interpreter on the telephone in under a minute to get people talking.
"We have to open a case, and we have to find out how they got to the United States, and for that we need an interpreter," Reilly said.
The need to be understood is growing in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau some 54.4 million people, or nearly one in five of the total population, spoke a language other than English at home last year, up from 47 million in 2000.
Every 19 seconds an individual needing language assistance arrives somewhere in the United States, presenting a challenge for professionals such as police officers, doctors and pharmacists nationwide.
"Very often the difference between life and death is being understood," said Language Line president Louis Provenzano.
Aside from Language Line, other U.S.-based firms such as CommGap and Cyracom provide qualified spoken word interpretation, either on site or through a one-touch phone call at a cost of between $1 and $2 per minute.
In July, Language Line formed an alliance with NetworkOmni, another firm in the sector, and now provides over-the-phone interpretation for that company's clients.
While many big city police forces, hospitals and banks have staff bilingual in Spanish -- which is spoken at home by more than 32 million Americans -- many use interpretation services for out-of-hours backup or to talk to people from less widely spoken language groups.
In one case, U.S. Customs officers at Salt Lake City airport called CommGap to help them talk to a refugee family who arrived from Somalia in the middle of the night. Despite the late hour, the firm got a May-May speaking interpreter to the site within minutes.
With Arabic, Chinese and Native Americans patients in their local community, medical staff at one Phoenix area hospital use Language Line interpreters on a daily basis to help take down histories, note symptoms and communicate a course of treatment to patients using dual-handset telephones to ensure that nothing gets lost in translation.
"Patient safety is our priority," said Sandi Cimino, a spokeswoman for Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Arizona. But "hearing a language that is comfortable, that is understandable, that peace is invaluable in a healthcare crisis."
Demographic projections suggest that minorities - classified as those of any race other than non-Hispanic, single-race whites -- will become the majority in the United States by 2050, creating an ever-more diverse, polyglot society.
Perhaps not surprising, interpretation and translation service firms are faring well in this time of flux, despite a global recession bringing a slew of job losses, housing foreclosures and a credit crunch.
The American Translators Association pegged the value of U.S. language services at $14 billion in 2008, and sees annual growth of 15 percent, driven by demand from both the government and private sectors.
While privately held language services firms do not publish profits, they share the ATA's upbeat outlook.
"You hear about the recession and how things are changing, and honestly, our company is growing," said Lelani Craig, president of Salt Lake City based CommGap, who estimates revenue has grown by around a fifth in the past year.
Language Line, meanwhile, which was spun off by top U.S. phone company AT&T Inc seven years ago and now has more than 25,000 clients in the United States and worldwide, reports business is "very solid" despite the downturn.
"While we may not be getting as many calls for banks to offer credit cards, we're getting phone calls for foreclosures. We still have people in the United States getting sick, unfortunately getting into trouble, getting arrested, having accidents," said Language Line's Provenzano.
Looking forward to the time when the unfolding recession comes to an end, growth is likely to continue for firms in the sector as they help companies reach out to a growing base of non-English speaking customers in the United States, he said.
"The consumer who doesn't speak English is four-times more likely to buy from a company that speaks their language," Provenzano said.
"If you're a Mandarin consumer, you'll go to a telephone company that speaks your language," he said. "You're not only more likely to buy from them, you're more likely to go back to your community and say buy from that company because they value us and speak our language."
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Eddie Evans