International English for Call Centres: a review

Review by Mike Unwalla.

Barry Tomalin and Suhashini Thomas, 2009. International English for Call Centres: a course in English language, culture and empathy. Macmillan Publishers India (www.macmillanindia.com). 188 pages and 2 CDs. ISBN 978-0230-63896-9.

Many international companies have call centres that are not in a customer's country. Many personnel in call centres have a good technical knowledge, but their language is not clear to many customers. Therefore, customers can become irritated. International English for Call Centres helps Indian personnel who are in Indian call centres to communicate with UK customers.

International English for Call Centres is designed for self-study. The book contains many written exercises and spoken exercises. Much of the content is good, but some parts of the book probably cause problems for readers. Sometimes, I struggled to understand parts of the book because some explanations are not clear. The book has some careless mistakes. For example, for audio exercise 3:19, the text in the book refers to audio exercise 3:13.

Most of the exercises are good. However, for some exercises, I did not get the correct answers. For example, for audio exercise 3:17, I did not correctly identify whether the speakers' voices rose or fell. Possibly, some readers also struggle.

The remaining parts of this review are about the following topics:

  1. British English is a type of International English
  2. Some explanations are not clear
  3. Why British customers become irritated with Indian call centre personnel

British English is a type of International English

The term international English has two meanings:

The authors explain that English is different in different parts of the world. Sometimes, people from different countries can easily understand one another. For example, people who speak American English can usually understand people who speak British English. Sometimes, many differences exist. For example, Indian English and British English have many differences. Sometimes, people cannot easily understand one another.

Initially, the authors use the term International English to mean American English and British English:

The back cover International English for Call Centres "shows you how to make the jump from Indian English to International English as used in the UK". In the Foreword, the authors write, "This course teaches you how to deal successfully and confidently with inbound and outbound communication with the UK." In the book, the authors use the terms International English and British English interchangeably.

This careless use of terms is not good. International English for Call Centres is not about International English (US English and British English). For example, the book discusses British accents and British culture, but the book does not discuss American accents or American culture. A better title for the book is British English for call centres: a course in English language, culture and empathy.

Explanations are not clear

Sometimes, the instructions in the book do not match the audio on the CDs. For example, for audio exercise 5:17, the book states, "Listen to these examples of words which are over-pronounced by giving full value to some vowels and then the correct pronunciation by shortening the weak vowel." However, only the correct pronunciation is on the CD.

Sometimes, the authors do not explain things clearly. A good example of a bad explanation is the section Breathe out to relax. The authors write that to relax when you speak, you must breathe in and speak at the same time:

I cannot speak when I breathe in. I asked a professional speaker for his comments. "To breathe in and to speak at the same time is a good party trick, but it is not useful to the average person in a call centre." (Duncan Miller, Random Acts, www.randomacts.ltd.uk.)

In the book, each exercise is labelled with the chapter number, the exercise number, and the caption 'Audio', for example, '2:3 Audio'. On each CD, the tracks are labelled consecutively from 'Track 1'. This mismatch is irritating. To make the CDs easier to use with the book, the book must show the track number, for example, '5:34 Audio, CD 2, track 6'.

Chapter 5 explains why many British people struggle to understand Indian accents. To represent the sounds of English, the authors use symbols that appear to be from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Usually, IPA symbols are shown between / and /. For an example, see the BBC's Sounds and spelling page (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/pron/features/spelling/).

The symbols in International English for Call Centres are not standard IPA. IPA represents one sound with one symbol. International English for Call Centres uses one symbol for more than one sound. For example, the book states that the letter 'I' has a long sound and a short sound:

When I first read chapter 5, I frequently thought, "This is not correct". To make clear to readers that the symbols are not IPA, different delimiters must be used. For example, use [] instead of //.

Why British customers become irritated with Indian call centre personnel

Chapter 1 explains that the primary differences between Indian English and British English are as follows:

The differences between the English that is used by call centre personnel and the English that is used by customers can confuse or irritate customers.

Chapter 2 to chapter 5 contain many practical exercises that help the personnel in Indian call centres to make their language clearer to people who speak British English.

Culture has an effect on communication. The largest problem for British people is that "they find the Indian formal politeness and respect quite embarrassing." The book gives some examples:

Indian people struggle to understand the references that British people make to British culture. In chapter 6, International English for Call Centres gives some examples:

Some customers become irritated when the person in the call centre cannot understand the customer. International English for Call Centres gives strategies that help call centre personnel to understand what a customer means.

Sometimes, people are busy. They do not want to speak to call centre personnel. They want answers to their problems. Chapter 7 gives strategies for developing empathy with customers. For example, if you hear a child start to cry, offer to continue the telephone call later.

Chapter 8 is about video conferences, teleconferences, and e-mail. Much of the information is about business behaviour, not about English. For example, if a problem exists, do not hide the problem from a manager. Instead, tell the manager about both the problem, and how you corrected the problem or how you will correct the problem.

The final chapter tells readers how to improve their knowledge of British English and British culture. International English for Call Centres ends with a list of things that help to prevent customers becoming irritated:

  1. Be relaxed and informal to give confidence to the customer.
  2. Be prompt. Do not make the customer wait. Always explain what occurs.
  3. Explain. Never say that you will do something if you cannot do it.
  4. Ask if you do not understand something.
  5. Escalate. Transfer to a team leader if you cannot deal with a customer.

See also

Articles about language

Reviews of books that are about English for international readers

International English pages on the TechScribe website

Writing for people who do not read easily: workshop review

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