chapter  32
15 Pages

‘Thank you for calling’: Asian Englishes and ‘native-like’ performance in Asian call centres

ByKingsley Bolton

The use of English as an international language in call centres in India and the Philippines has the potential to illuminate a range of issues relating to World Englishes as well as a number of other questions concerning bilingualism, second-language acquisition, and sociolinguistics. The background to this is that, since the early 2000s, large numbers of clerical, data management and other jobs have been exported from ‘native’ English-speaking societies, such as the UK and US, to societies such as India and the Philippines, where there are now sufficient numbers of proficient language users able to perform tasks previously reserved for American and British employees. For the last two decades, many linguists have made the claim that English was no longer the sole possession of Britain and America, that it was truly a world language. Now it seems that such a claim is being vindicated, even at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs in the US and UK, as these have been exported to India, the Philippines and elsewhere. In the early 2000s, this development not only caught the attention of the world’s press, but it also gave rise to a series of debates in both the developed world and in those developing countries, such as India and the Philippines, where ‘linguistic outsourcing’ was becoming a key strand in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industries that were being established in such locations as Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai (in India) and Manila (Philippines). One influential book that appeared shortly after such news reports began to appear,

and was widely cited in business and political circles, was Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (first published in 2005). Both the title and the content of his book were stimulated by a visit Friedman made to the Indian information technology companies Infosys and WiPro in Bangalore, India, in 2004, where he witnessed the work that these companies were doing in writing computer software for US and European businesses and running the back offices of multinational companies, all of which involved such disparate tasks as computer maintenance, hightech research, answering customer calls from all over the world and dealing with a range of other BPO operations. After its publication, Friedman’s bestseller drew a hail

of criticism, with the San Francisco Chronicle dubbing Friedman the ‘High priest of free-trade fundamentalism’ (Sirota 2006), and The Economist taking Friedman to task for his ‘imprecision’ and ‘sloppiness’, and the ‘dreary failure’ of his book (The Economist 2005: 81). The links between Friedman’s analysis and issues related to World Englishes are

somewhat indirect, but overall it seems clear that the use of English as a global language is essential to many of the processes Friedman describes. In his account of the workings of an Indian call centre, he provides the following description:

There are currently about 245,000 Indians answering phones from all over the world or dialling out to solicit people for credit cards or cell phone bargains or overdue bills. These call center jobs are low-wage, low-prestige jobs in America, but when shifted to India they become high-wage, high-prestige jobs. The esprit de corps at 24/7 and other call centers I visited seemed quite high, and the young people were all eager to share some of the bizarre phone conversations they’ve had with Americans who dialed 1-800-HELP, thinking they would wind up talking to someone around the block, not around the world.