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… and the winner is …

Simply Business has just won the BELMA 2016 Gold award at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
BELMA (Best European Learning Materials Awards) are presented every year to excellent educational materials from Europe.

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Business English bei Cornelsen

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Accent Neutralization at the Indian Call Centre

The South Indian city of Bangalore today is full of malls and multi-storey complexes with fancy glass facades. The complexes house various offices from the BPO sector including all the big names such as DELL and Bosch. It started with the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, which attracted various multinational companies. The companies began to set up so-called ‘Tech-Parks’ all over the city, employing an English-speaking workforce and connecting India to the west via hundreds of call centres.

I remember my Indian cousin being quite thrilled about her first call-centre job almost 15 years ago. I think she still unconsciously switches to a fake American accent when she speaks to foreigners. Working in a call centre was an attractive job in the beginning – maybe it had to do with the air-conditioned offices, maybe it had to do with being associated with a major international company. But the burn-out rates were (and are) high and call-centre jobs are no longer attractive to the highly educated upper middle class.

When I found out that an Indian friend in Bangalore was now freelancing as an English trainer at call centres, I was pleasantly surprised. Up until then I had thought that it was only Americans and Brits who took such ‘accent training’ classes. I had always thought this ironic especially in the light that in Bangalore and other Indian cities a whole generation of urban children is growing up largely monolingual in English.

English is used across the country by speakers with various degrees of proficiency and often with a grammar and phraseology that mimic the speaker’s first language, with Indian idioms and literal translations of words and phrases from their mother tongues. Some speak an English quite close to Standard British RP, while others have a strong ‘native-tinted’ accent in English. Here is a compilation of various Indian accents I found on YouTube which showcases the wide range of educated ‘Englishes’ in India:

Today call centres do not require their agents to speak either American or British English, but English with a ‘neutral’ accent. Language training courses now aim at accent neutralization so that communication over the distortion of a phone line can run smoothly. A lot of companies have also dropped the policy of ‘locational masking’ and don’t even give their agents fictional identities for work anymore. A ‘neutral’ global accent also allows the agents to serve various markets without additional training. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the companies who invest in these language trainings anymore but the potential call-centre agents themselves. Various English training institutes such Orion EduTech have sprung up where young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds actually pay to learn an English that will land them a job in a call centre!

A primary goal of language training courses is to eradicate what is known as ‘Mother Tongue Influence’ in English. There are 22 official languages spoken in India and each one influences the English there. But where is the journey going? In practice, ‘global’ or ‘neutral’ English can be interpreted in a number of different ways. While older staff with a background in English language teaching try to shift the pronunciation in the direction of British accents, emphasizing the British origin of English in India, younger staff are more oriented towards American English thanks to popular culture and films. The result is an English which is not necessary ‘neutral’, but without of any strong local influences and sometimes difficult to identify as ‘Indian’.

Rani Kumar