About Utah: He's remodeling the language barrier

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 7:07 a.m. MDT

Curtis and Donell Pons have the solution to your language problems at their fingertips.

Lee Benson

SALT LAKE CITY — Curtis Pons was trying to figure out how to remodel a kitchen when he had his Thomas Edison moment.

Wait, that’s not quite accurate.

He was trying to figure out how to tell someone else how to remodel a kitchen.

Curtis, 50, is the founder and owner of Yalecrest Building & Design, the company he started 20 years ago when he got into the construction business. Full-home remodels are his specialty. He typically runs a crew of six or seven guys, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the job.

His workers are good workers, which is great, but almost all of them speak Spanish, which is sometimes not so great.

When you’re building things, communicating properly is important. Otherwise, the toilet might wind up in the den and the microwave might end up in the bathroom.

For years, Curtis has battled the language barrier. He’s used every tactic he could think of to get his point across. Sign language, hand signals, charades, mimicry, talking louder, talking slower. When the Internet got sophisticated enough to use algorithms, allowing computers to talk to other computers and take a calculated guess at what people were trying to say to each other, he tried any number of language apps, with varying degrees of success.

Then one day last summer it hit him:

Why not develop an app that uses humans?

The result is MiLingo — Spanish for “my language.”

It works like this: You have a problem communicating with another person because you speak, let’s say, English, and the other person speaks, let’s say, French.

So you go to the MiLingo app on your phone and find, right there at your fingertips, a person who speaks English and French.

You touch the screen and call that person, who comes on the line and interprets for everyone involved. You can put the interpreter on speakerphone or create a three-way conversation. Either way, you’re covered.

You haven’t negotiated the language barrier — you’ve obliterated it.

Curtis’s app is a classic blend of the oldest old school and the newest new school. The technology that makes it possible to bridge calls between all cell carriers is cutting edge, wasn’t-available-yesterday stuff, while the ability for humans to use one another as interpreters is as old as language itself.

To get ready for a launch day sometime early this summer, Curtis has been busy assembling his infrastructure. Already, he’s signed up nearly 1,000 bilingual speakers who have agreed to become MiLingo interpreters. Many of them are returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who learned other languages while on their missions. Curtis found them by going to LDSjobs.org. The deal is the interpreters agree to being on call 24/7 and MiLingo agrees to pay them for their phone time.

Curtis plans to launch with 15 languages and 50 language pairs in the system. You want Swedish to Swahili? Got it. How about Samoan to Spanish? Got that, too. Although he’s still working on Icelandic to Tagalog.

His app will also have a “specialist” component. If you need to talk about finance, you can call an interpreter who is fluent in financial lingo. Same with medicine, religion, food, music, manufacturing and so forth.

The app will be a free download. The user will pay by the minute. Proceeds will be split among the technology provider, the interpreter, and Curtis and his wife Donell, who is the chief marketing officer of MiLingo (Curtis is CEO).

The enterprise is a family affair. You can see a video demonstration by going to milingo.com and clicking on “MiLingo Video on Kickstarter.” The artwork in the video is courtesy of Curtis and Donell’s 16-year-old daughter Sydney, while the video was edited by their 13-year-old son Cooper, and the music came from 12-year-old Bridger.

Curtis isn’t sure how far his idea will fly. His fondest hopes are that all sorts of people and places, from hospitals to businesses to state departments to the New York Yankees, will use it to their (and his) great advantage.

At the very least, he knows one person who will use it. No more confusing workplace conversations for Yalecrest Building & Design. If there’s any question about where he wants one of his guys to place the toilet, he knows someone he can call.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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