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Chapter 2. They May not Be Americans or Brits, but They Can Speak Your Language

But the problem is, they can’t understand me because they are not Americans! And what are these Indians doing, trying to talk like an American and selling me vitamins?
A virtual assistants in a call center shared this call. He used to work for a catalogue company whose order line was based in Lithuania but the customer service centre was based in U.K.

*** Caller: Hi, are you in India?
*** Virtual Assistant: No, we’re based in the U.K.
*** Caller: Well I was talking to an Indian just a moment ago.
*** Virtual Assistant: You were transferred to customer services from my colleague in Lithuania.
*** Caller: Is that in India?
*** Virtual Assistant: No, it’s in Europe.
*** Caller: But she had an Indian accent!

We can’t really blame outsiders of the telemarketing industry to think that all call centers are in India, although Lithuania is definitely not anywhere near India, a big pity to the geographically challenged person. Also, Indians are all over the world; they are not only contained in India. And no, the writer of this book is not Indian.

But we can’t really blame the wrong impression that Indians have the monopoly of call centers. India has established a strong presence in the call center industry.

A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, ranks India as the top ideal location for outsourcing in its “2011 A.T. Kearney Global Services Location Index.” The criteria for the ranking include financial attractiveness, people skills and availability, and business environment.

During the 1990’s, American companies such as American Express, GE Capital and British Airways started to use Indians in outsourcing services. Medical transcription, data processing, medical billing and customer support were one of the first outsourced services engaged in by Indian virtual assistants. And from the basic customer service support on which their call center industry was founded, Indians have gained expertise in other business process outsourcing such as accounting, human resources and information technology. Today, India has an annual $ 73 billion information service business with thousands of new startups in web technology.

Yet despite the fact that India has been under the British rule for 89 years and thus making a lot of Indians speak English as a second language, most of us are caught up in a mentality that David Graddol describes in his study, English Next, for the British Council. According to him, “One of the legacies of the British Empire is that, in many countries, access to English remains part of an elitest (sic) social process. In the old, modernist model, English proficiency acted as a marker of membership of a select, educated, middle class group.”

This may explain why many people find it almost hard to believe non-native English speakers in other countries do speak English fluently. Graddol explains in his study, “The role of education in school is now seen as to provide the generic skills needed to acquire new knowledge and specialist skills in the future: learning how to learn. Literacy in the national language and, perhaps the mother tongue where that is different, remains a basic skill, as does numeracy. But information technology – how to use computers and applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and internet browsers – has become just as important in basic education. In globalised economies, English seems to have joined this list of basic skills. Quite simply, its function and place in the curriculum is no longer that of ‘foreign language’ and this is bringing about profound changes in who is learning English, their motives for learning it and their needs as learners.”

English learners are also becoming younger in other countries. A decade ago, English was being taught as a foreign language. But presently, English is already introduced in primary schools. Some governments are investing billions in ensuring that their citizens are capable of speaking in English. Columbia embarked on a ‘Social Programme for Foreign Languages without Borders’ which was developed to give opportunities for poor Columbian students and professionals to learn a second language (primarily English) and aims to make the country bilingual in ten years. The Prime Minister of Mongolia declared in 2004 that the country should become bilingual in English. The Chilean government started a program to make its 15 million citizens bilingual within a generation. South Korea plans to make English an official language in new enterprise zones.

Graddol further added, “In the Baltic states and post-soviet countries, English has, in many cases, now replaced Russian as the main foreign language. In Estonia, for example, the census in 2000 asked citizens which foreign languages they could speak. It found that the decline of Russian speaking was exactly matched by rise in English amongst young people.”

The lack of English proficiency even in China is quickly changing. A few years back, when Pepsi started marketing its products in China, they translated their slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” pretty literally. The slogan in Chinese really meant, “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.” But B.B. Kachru suggests that there were 200 million Chinese English users in 1995. But as a result of their new policy of making English compulsory in primary schools from Grade 3, China now produces over 20 million new users of English each year.

There are also countries that speak English as a second language as a result of being colonized. Some of these are: Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, UAE, Yemen, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Marian Islands and Guam.
We are coming to an age where the question of the nationality of the virtual assistant in a call center on the other end of the line becomes insignificant because that person can speak English as well as you do, be he Indian, Egyptian or Puerto Rican.