A little less accent, a little more customer service

Breaking down the language barriers of outsourcing

One of the more frustrating aspects of offshoring is communicating effectively with customer service agents whose English language skills are suspect.

IBM is looking to change that. Researchers at Big Blue's India Research Laboratory recently announced that they have developed a Web-based, interactive language technology to help people who speak English as a second language improve their speaking skills.

According to IBM, the system is based on advanced speech processing techniques the company devised for call centers in India to help improve the capabilities of their agents. The technology evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other spoken-language skills, and provides detailed scores for each category. The program uses specially-adapted speech recognition software to score the pronunciation of passages and the stressing of syllables for individual words. The technology also consists of voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests, which identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing examples of correct pronunciation and grammar, IBM says.

Over the years there have been debates about how to effectively get foreign call center workers to "sound more English" but with little impact. When the outsourcing boom started in the late 1990s, companies tried to ease Western fears of jobs moving offshore by training workers to use American and British accents when speaking to clients. After a couple years of that notion, workers were told to junk the fake accents and instead speak up, speak clearly and get to the point.

"English has become the common language of the business world, so the ability to communicate effectively in English can dictate success or failure in integrating into the global business environment," said Dan Dias, director of IBM's India Research Lab in a statement. IBM's technology is designed for easy learning, letting students interact with the tool as if they are playing an online game. If a student mispronounces a word, the learning tool can immediately spot it and help correct it, Dias says.

The IBM technology comes at a time when, in India at least, there has been some backlash against the influx of offshored work.

For example, last week Bangalore, the offshoring hub of India, said it was changing its name to Bengalooru, its vernacular name, in an attempt to appease locals disturbed by the tremendous influx of outsiders to the city in the past few years. Other large Indian cities have changed their names in recent years to appease local groups -- Bombay became Mumbai and Madras became Chennai.

Reuters recently reported that while Bangalore has traditionally been among India's more cosmopolitan centers, the increased migration over the last decade has alienated some locals and led to the resurgence of regional chauvinistic groups. Their campaign seeking primacy for the local Kannada language -- which they say is threatened by the influx -- has seen shops and businesses in Bangalore removing English signboards and prominently displaying Kannada signs. Kannada activists and writers also have opposed a state government move to introduce teaching English in primary government schools across the state, Reuters says.

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