Lost in translation? Here’s help to find your way.


How’s your Papiamentu these days?

If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, no worries. Two minutes before I wrote that line, I couldn’t have told you that Papiamentu is a Creole dialect spoken in Aruba. But now I’ve heard sound clips of phrases in that language courtesy of, which is at once a terrific language learning tool and one of my favorite word geek time-wasters.

The site is a trove of useful—and, by design, useless—phrases in all sorts of languages. In almost no time, it taught me to say good morning, good afternoon, good evening, goodnight, thank you, and “Do you speak English?” in Greek. Omniglot won’t make you fluent, but when I gave my new Greek vocabulary a trial run in a conversation with a hotel manager in Athens, he said my pronunciation was perfect.

It’s also the place to learn phrases that you’re not going to need unless your life is very different from mine. Or pretty much anyone else’s. Things like, “My aunt hates cheese, but she plays saxophone quite well” in Serbian. Or, “Excuse me, miss, there’s a duck on your head” in Indonesian. Or, “Clean my boots at once!” in Swahili. Although who among us wouldn’t want, while strolling the charming cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan in Stockholm, to be equipped to cry out, “The giant crayfishes are attempting to conquer the Earth!” in Swedish?

But let’s return to more practical matters.

In the world of digital foreign language support, rule one is: don’t use online translators unless your goal is comedy, embarrassment, or a combination of the two. If you really need a translation, you need a skilled translator, and so far, at least, those come only in human form. But there are many excellent resources available on the web for multilingual learning. In addition to Omniglot, some of my favorites include:

Verbix, “an independent non-profit organization that aims to promote and protect linguistic diversity.” If you’re writing in your second (or third, or…) language and get stuck on the conjugation of an irregular verb in a tricky or little-used tense, the Verbix online verb conjugator will come to your rescue. is a massive collection of online dictionaries in languages from Abenaki to Zulu. Some of the resources are straightforward single or dual-language dictionaries—not just the familiar English-French variety, but Italian-Hungarian, Russian-German, and so forth. But others take the linguistic roads less traveled: poke around the site, and you’ll find a Slavic etymological dictionary, a Portuguese glossary of Judaism, and a Sardinian food glossary. Not to mention the French lexicon of golf terms. Yes, there’s time-waster potential here, too, but also no shortage of more practical language support.

As Spanish is my second language, it’s the focus of my foreign-language bookmarks, which include the Real Academia Española online dictionary; the dictionary of Latin American slang Jergas de habla hispana; and Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s Spanish-language world atlas, a good quick resource for checking place-name spelling in Spanish.

These resources may not make you bilingual. But if you love language, they’ll show you a good time—and help you bridge communications gaps any time you venture into unfamiliar territory.


Do right by the world: don’t get voluntourism wrong.


I’ve had a relationship with children—now young adults—at an orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for the past decade. I met them on my first visit to the country through my friend and business partner, Alex Talavera, who volunteered regularly at the children’s home.

What began with small monthly donations to support a budget that didn’t include line items for things like milk grew into a project to end the poverty cycle by giving some of them an education beyond high school. Today, one young woman is halfway to becoming a veterinarian. Another is in her second semester as a university student in broadcast technology. And two more are in the wings as they approach their final year of high school.

They call me Tía—Aunt. I call them my girls. But I’m still shaken occasionally by the memory of how they bid me farewell at the end of my first trip to Bolivia.

I’d arrived for my first visit with art supplies and sweets—a Ring Pop and M&M Minis pack for each child—and returned on subsequent days with items checked off a list of necessities like school supplies and food staples. We’d played in the yard and had fun together, but they weren’t free to just enjoy that as children should. They’d been taught that they were responsible for ensuring that the support continued.

As that last visit drew to a close in 2006, 35 children stood single file, approached me one by one, shook my hand, and said, “Gracias por su apoyo.”

Thank you for your support.

Not one was older than 12. And except for the babies and toddlers, all had already been trained to engage in donor relations.

My connection to these young people has become one of the most important of my life. Given this history, I understand the urge, when traveling in a country where poverty is overwhelming, to do something to help. To take one day away from the beaches, mountains, or historic sites and help someone who, no doubt about it, needs the assistance.

In the best case scenario, a school gets painted, or a garden is planted, or a garbage-strewn stretch of land is cleaned up. But in the worst case scenario, children become part of a vacation itinerary and are obliged to offer thanks to strangers who are already looking ahead to the next life experience. And in those cases, everyone emerges poorer in one way or another.

If you want to do something positive in the communities you visit, make sure you do it in a positive way. Look for programs that let you make a more lasting commitment to causes that matter to you and the people whose lives you enter. That urge to help is powerful. It’s the best of what makes us human. And for that reason, it’s something that merits more than a brief encounter with people who will have new voluntourists to thank tomorrow or next week. Your impact will be greater, and the experience will be more meaningful for everyone.


Phrasal verbs: bridging the communication gap.


There are pickup trucks, pick-up bars, and dropped items that need to be picked up. When your friends are depressed, you take them to dinner to pick up their spirits. Then, at the end of the meal, you say, “My treat—I’ll pick up the check this time.” And before a storm, you may notice the wind picking up.

As a native English speaker, you naturally pick up (there it is again!) on the nuances in meaning for each use of “pick up” above. But for the rest of the planet’s population, constructions like these—called phrasal verbs—are among the greatest obstacles to mastering English as a second language.

That’s something to bear in mind if you’re doing business with companies abroad or serving customers here at home who aren’t native English speakers, because phrasal verbs can drive some ESL learners to the brink of a psychological breakdown. Which is not to be confused with a statistical or mechanical breakdown. Nor the tendency of sentimental people to break down in tears when they watch a sad movie. Not to mention the way permissive parents break down and give in to their children’s demands.

“Give in” is another phrasal verb, by the way. As is “give out.” Pity the poor ESL teacher who has to explain this sentence to a non-native English learner: “At the 24th mile, the marathoner felt his knee give out, and he had to give in and quit the race.”

If you know someone who’s learning English and struggling with these pesky constructions, these resources might help. There’s a Cambridge University Press app called The Phrasal Verbs Machine that’s available for iPhones and Androids. Another good resource is Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) site, which offers this phrasal verb overview.

Beyond that, there’s not much we can do about the existence of phrasal verbs. Our funny little language is riddled with them, and we understand them because…well, because we just do. But we can watch our use of them when doing business with people who don’t comprehend them as easily. By adding a component of cultural awareness to our communication with ESL speakers, we can add a component of profitability to our business.


Government contracting: engine for small business growth?


Small businesses and even sole proprietors can stake out a piece of the global economy. But not everyone wants to work across borders, and that’s not the only way to build bigger clients into your growth plans.

If you’re more comfortable sticking with domestic commerce, don’t overlook opportunities to work in the public sector. Whether you’re a moonlighting consultant, full-time freelancer, or owner of a small business, you could be qualified for certification as a federal government contractor.

And that’s a huge market. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, each year, federal government purchases of small business goods and services come to nearly $100 billion. If your small business can use a chunk of that change, check out these free online resources. They can support your company’s move into government contracting and help ensure that you compete effectively in this lucrative market.

You don’t have to go back to school to become a government contractor—but you can, free of charge, through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s online Government Contracting Classroom. See the course list here.

Which federal agencies are seeking the products or services that your small business provides? Check the General Services Administration’s searchable database, FedBizOpps.Gov.

Before you can pursue government contracting opportunities, you’ll need to register with the GSA’s System for Award Management. Don’t forget to complete the small business profile; it will be integrated into the SBA’s Dynamic Small Business Search database, which agencies can use to find prospective contractors.

If you qualify, it’s a good idea to complete certification as a minority–, woman–, or service-disabled veteran–owned small business or as a small disadvantaged business. From this page, you can learn about certification benefits and procedures for each of these classifications.

Another point of entry to government contracting is working as a subcontractor to a larger business that is already a government vendor. The SBA maintains an online directory of business names and contact information collected “from subcontracting plans that are submitted to the Government when a large business receives a Federal contract over $650,000.”

Don’t forget government contracting at the state level. The Minority Business Development Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, maintains this online directory of state offices for minority- and woman-owned enterprises.


Conversion tools help small business owners immeasurably.


In foreign commerce partnerships, finding a common language is only half the battle. Business owners in the United States must clear the additional hurdle of mastering the measurement system used by most of the rest of the world. That’s right: if you’re going to work with, sell to, or buy from companies in other countries, you’re going to have to go the extra mile (so to speak) and get used to speaking metric.

Why? Because if you’re importing food that has to be stored at a certain temperature, you need to know how that number converts from Celsius to Fahrenheit. If you’re exhibiting at a trade show in another country, you need to understand how to choose among booth sizes presented in square meters. If your rental car abroad gets 15 kilometers to the liter, it’s helpful to understand how far you can go before you need to stop for petrol.

The good news in this digital age is that metric conversion is like the math that you never quite mastered in high school. No problem: we have calculators for that stuff now. I’m a big fan of Science Made Simple’s online tools, which convert to or from metric measurements of area, distance, length/height, speed, temperature, volume, weight, power, pressure, and fuel economy.

For currency conversion, I like the calculator at OANDA, which offers live and historical exchange rates in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Time zones can trip you up, too, especially when the U.S. changes its clocks between Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time, which we do on a different schedule than most other countries. World Time Server not only keeps track of the current time, but also offers online converters and meeting planners to help people in distance cities coordinate their schedules.

When calling overseas, check Country Calling Codes, which gives you the telephone codes for the country and city you’re dialing. And if your emails to business partners abroad are generating bounce-back error messages, check the Visibone Country Chart. The URL that you thought was a .com may actually be a .za (South Africa), .vn (Vietnam), or .nl (Netherlands).

Finally, if you’re traveling abroad on business, be sure to pack the right adaptor for your electronic devices. gives you names, descriptions, and pictures of outlet by country so you can stay plugged into your network wherever you go.