Monthly Archives: November 2013

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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Launch of English Impact Report

British Council India, in partnership with Pratham ASER Centre launches English Impact Report: Investigating English Language Learning Outcomes at the Primary School Level in Rural India, at the British Council in New Delhi on Wednesday 20 November at 6.30 pm IST.

Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and Madhav Chavan, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation will launch the report in the presence of Baroness Usha Prashar, Vice Chair of the British Council.

The launch will be followed by a presentation of the findings and an interactive panel discussion on“What can we do to make a difference to English language learning outcomes in India?”, chaired by Colin Bangay, Senior Education Advisor, DFID India.

Confirmed speakers on the panel are:

Alison Barrett, Director English for Education Systems, British Council South Asia

Jamie Dunlea, Researcher, English & Exams, British Council

Rukmini Banerji, Director, Pratham ASER Centre

Ujjwal Singh, Founder CEO, The Curriculum Company

Vivien Berry, Senior Researcher, English Language Assessment, British Council

(*The audience is required to be seated by 6.15 pm.)

If you are interested in attending this event, please write to

Watch the live webcast in the British Council at Chandigarh, Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. 

You can follow some of the discussions on Twitter @inBritish with #EngImpact.

This report is being launched in the UK on 12 November, as part of the UK – South Asia Season.

About the book

Edited by Vivien Berry and put together by the British Council’s research, publications and assessment teams in India and the UK, this report presents an analysis of the English learning outcomes data gathered by Pratham ASER Centre from children attending primary schools in rural India from 2007 to 2012.

In addition to the in-depth analysis by Jamie Dunlea and Karen Dunn, the volume has essays from international authorities on English language teaching, education and multilingualism from India and the UK, framing the context of the study. Jason Rothman and Jeanine Treffers-Daller from theUniversity of Reading, UK, talk about multilingualism in an international context, while R Amritavalli from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India, writes about the varied contexts in which English is taught in India’s multilingual classrooms.

Rukmini Banerji and Savitri Bobde of Pratham ASER Centre write about the evolution of the ASER tools and Barry O’Sullivan discusses the implications of the inferences of this analyses.

The volume will trigger a number of debates about the role of English and the quality of language learning and teaching (and not just English) in India’s multilingual schools, particularly in public-funded education, and comes at a time when the focus on learning outcomes in our schools is greater than ever before.

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