BPOs and English Language Teaching

Automatic-linguistic-articulated-recognition-modulations (ALARM) is now the standard software system (retail INR 1,50,000 per month by licence from the Vocal Algorithmic and Synthesis for Customer Organisation (VASCO, a reference to that other pioneering globaliser Vasco da Gama)) in the Business Process Outsourcing industry. Customers call in, and remember the customer is all, and an ‘advisor’ responds to their business query: a cash transfer request, where the nearest (and by now dwindling) physical presence of the local bank branch is – UNESCO has only recently awarded heritage status to the long-demolished site of the first ExisCo Bank in Bandra West – a 3D-printed credit statement with free hologram paperweight; and no common language is shared by customer or advisor.

VASCO has levelled the linguistic ghats and Himalayas. A Voice Modulation and Synthesis node, a prosthetic vocal modulator secreted behind the epiglottis of the advisor, automatically translates what the customer states, interprets its essence syntactically, semantically, and functionally, and translates back from the advisor’s first language into a dialectically nuanced yet perfect version of the customer’s first language. Hey presto! Local language Mother Tongues are preserved from extinction, all thanks to the wonders of technology – where Global English, as was, now it’s Global Culture Neutral (GCN), an acultural, non-offensive, knowledge-based, audience-driven, process-centred, profit-assured lingua franca, rules the airwaves – but I wonder if King George VII would understand it.

Or so we may have it.

Acronyms, pioneering future projects, treading a fine line between utopia and dystopia, process reconciliation versus customer service – all these coalesce into the model-heavy world of the BPO. At times both anachronistic in terms of what is worst about what came out of the 1980s but steadfastly resilient about its reach into the future, the BPO is a grey entity that hides a vibrant core. It’s the worst example of a depersonalised nomenclature for a thriving industry of thousands, hundreds of thousands of eager workers, trying their hardest to do the most difficult job on the planet – keeping a customer happy on someone else’s behalf. In fact, BPOs, as an idea, like any company for that matter – and by company I mean its logo, its reputation, its marketing, its vision – does not in reality exist. It’s a combination of technology, bricks and mortars, and young beating hearts with a job to do.

I have been training in a large-scale BPO for several months now, and it’s a tough job.  My task is to manage the training of 4 communication coaches in two sites – 2 each in Malad, Mumbai, and Noida in New Delhi. These coaches in turn train and coach up to 20 team leaders, who in turn train up to 1,400 advisors who are performing in what is known as the bottom quartile – the low-performers. What determines this performance status is the all-powerful Customer Satisfaction Survey: the C-SAT. This metric thunders up and down the training vertical, pushing for an ever-deepening imprint.

And it’s in this world that higher education meets a potential rival. With a dearth of decent language schools, beyond the mom and pop IELTS shops, and the IB schools ploughing its own furrow to an international education or a home-spun B-school, many established or hopeful English Language trainers find themselves in this parallel ELT-universe: no informed eclecticism here, no free-wheeling experimentation with the silent way or lexical approach, but rather a product- and process-driven formalisation of English language teaching, stapled together winningly (it could never be otherwise) with faintly worrying terms like Accent Neutralisation, and soft-pedalling its merry way to a Brave New World.

Whether, from today’s possibility-driven vantage point, this appears as a Future Perfect, or from that very future looking back to what we are starting to lose today, a more nostalgic Past Simple can be discerned, the admixture is a forceful voice in giving us a clue as to how language is itself becoming a tool and skill-set, quite removed from the innocence of just communicating with one another.

Post by: Richard Hunt

Corporate Training Consultant, British Council, Mumbai

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