English in Philippine call centers and BPO operations: Issues, opportunities and research

Jane Lockwood, Gail Forey, Helen Price

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter or section

17 Citations (SciVal)


In the context of the rapidly-expanding Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines, issues relating to diversity and convergence in the use of English are becoming strongly foregrounded. Essentially, the BPO industry comprises a variety of call centers, back office functions, and support services, which are outsourced to sites that are more economical to run than those at home. In the Philippine context, most of the call centers are the customer services departments of banks, insurance companies, retail outlets, IT support, and travel agencies, with head offices in the US, the UK, and Australia. Through telecommunications, speakers are brought into contact from diverse socio-economic, geographical, and ethnolinguistic backgrounds in this globalized workspace. Complex information and services are then negotiated within the constraints of the telephone and computer screen through English. Language proficiency and standards of performance have increasingly become the focus of industry and government discussions in a site where English language capacity is seen by many as a key factor for future expansion and sustainability, and where customer satisfaction is closely dependent on the success of communication between participants (SGV and Co., 2006; Forey and Lockwood, forthcoming). While current market forces exert pressure on call center agents to use a standardized variety of English, the various stakeholders - be they overseas clients, their customers, or local staff - come to this situation with differing understandings and expectations of English as the working language. To date, little research has been carried out to identify the language and communication issues in offshore call centers. The limited number of applied linguistic studies that have been published tend to focus on call centers based in the UK (Adolphs, et al., 2004; Cameron, 2000a, 2000b). Few, if any, studies have focused on the language training within the call center industry and the need to develop a pedagogic approach based on authentic resources. Researchers have commented on the high stress and pressure experienced by the customer service representative (CSR) in call center work (see Cameron, 2000a; Taylor and Bain, 1999). However, workplace studies of the environment and Human Resource (HR) issues of call center work tend to be focused on call centers which are based onshore, where the CSR is more likely to be a speaker of the same variety of English (Mulholland, 2004; Rose and Wright 2005; Witt et al., 2004). Likewise, the research that is available on offshore call center destinations tends to focus on features not related to language. In offshore destinations, the language may be another added pressure, especially if the CSR is operating in a second or third language. In terms of broader research on English language usage in the Philippines, a large body of work over the last three decades has been building up a picture of many of the features of Philippine English (PE), as a localized dialect of English realizing one of the 'outer circle' varieties of Asian Englishes (Kachru, 1997), where English has 'second' rather than 'first language' status. The descriptive focus of Philippine English has been on lexical and grammatical features (e.g. Llamzon, 1969; Gonzalez, 1985; Bautista, 1997, 2000, 2004a; Bolton and Butler, 2004), and distinct phonological features across various socio-economic groups (e.g. Llamzon, 1997; Tayao, 2004, this volume) - i.e. at phoneme, word, and sentence level, rather than the mapping of patterns across larger stretches of spoken text between interlocutors. Tupas (2004) has noted that these studies of Philippine English have largely been concerned with English as it is spoken (or written) between educated Filipinos in localized, urban settings. The exception to this would be the published studies such as Bautista's in 1982 and 1996, identifying certain linguistic features of the 'sub-varieties' of English usage by Filipino maids and bar-girls, and the work of Llamzon (1997) and Tayao (2004) on variation in Philippine English phonology across socio-economic groups. In local speech communities, meanings tend to be commonly shared by all participants, and code-switching strategies are available to further extend the meaning potential through the use of Filipino or other shared dialects and languages - semantic resources that are unavailable in the call center interaction. Hence, from an applied linguistic and social perspective, the expanding workplace of the BPO industry offers critical opportunities for research and intervention. First, we can study the dynamic interface between English as it functions in a localized context, i.e. in 'outer circle' multilingual Filipino speech communities; and as it functions in a trans-global context, i.e. with diverse interlocutors from predominantly 'inner circle' countries where English is spoken as a first language (Kachru, 1997). The acquisition of new registers and dialectal shifts by the CSR can also be researched through longitudinal studies and corpus-based analysis of call center discourse from novice through to seasoned agents. Second, the offshore customer service call, as an emerging genre, can be analyzed to provide a better understanding of the discourse features of service interactions - ones that increasingly influence the way in which personal business is processed across the globe. Third, in terms of applied linguistics and workplace training, the apprenticeship of the novice CSR also creates many challenges for language teaching and assessment practices in a workplace that must perform under considerable pressure and time constraints. A survey of approaches to such training and assessment in the BPO industry can reveal the underlying attitudes and beliefs about the English language that are held by the various stakeholders. A clearer understanding of these perspectives and motivations can inform future initiatives and educational policy. In this chapter, we will firstly provide an overview of some of the current practices and issues relating to English language and communication in this new context, based on our research in the BPO industry since 2004 (Forey and Lockwood, forthcoming), and other studies in this area. Secondly, we will report on our study of call center discourse in the Philippines, describing preliminary findings relating to features of these interactions and communication problems commonly faced by CSRs. In doing so, we will start to consider what the language implications of this globalized movement offshore are, and what kind of research could inform the development of language support programs for its workforce, initiatives that can better respond to and accommodate the diversity and complexities of the BPO context.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhilippine English: Linguistic and Literary Perspectives
EditorsM. A. Lourdes S. Bautista, K. Bolton
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9789622099470
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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