Friday, September 3, 2010

When it greatly matters what English accent we’ve acquired

Does it really matter what English accent we’ve acquired? For our day-to-day spoken communication with our own countrymen, not really that much. It’s anything goes for everybody, from primary-school teachers all the way to the movers and shakers in the corporate world, in the halls of Congress, and in the higher echelons of government. We all can get by with our own variety of Taglish, Ilocano English, Bicol English, or Visayan English in the same way that many Chinese get by with their Chinglish, the Japanese with their Japlish, the Singaporeans with their Singlish, and the South Koreans with their Konglish.

In the more demanding outsourced call-center services industry, however, great premium is placed on what’s called “USA 101” for the North American market and “Aussie 101” for the Australian market. Both require a clear, neutral English accent, which means none of—or the ruthless elimination of—the distracting peculiarities of the nonnative spoken Englishes I enumerated earlier.

Indeed, the accent-neutralization of one’s English is the hefty price of acceptance to a call-center job, and in the following essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, I describe what it takes to acquire a globally understandable, acceptable, and bankable spoken English. (September 4, 2010) 
On English accents and globalization

I recently mentioned in my column in The Manila Times that prospective Filipino call-center agents are trained to acquire a neutral American English accent to communicate more effectively with the North Americans they have to deal with over the phone. In response, a US-based reader, Celso Madarang, wrote me that he couldn’t imagine how a school or a seminar can teach people a particular English accent.

He might find it surprising, I told Celso, that there are now a good number of language institutes in the Philippines that specialize in teaching people how to acquire a desired English accent. In addition, most of the call centers themselves have in-house accent training departments that drill prospective call-center agents on the English accent the call center specifically needs.

In fact, my eldest son Eduardo underwent one such English accent training the other year when, on a lark, he tried applying for a call-center job. He got accepted and worked as a call-center agent for two months. He eventually quit because as a working student, he couldn’t take the “graveyard shift” from 10:00 p.m.-7:00 a.m. anymore, but the accent training certainly gave him a very pleasant American English accent. It served him very well in his job as part-time instructor in computer basics and web programming in a leading Metro Manila computer school (and, if I may add as a postscript, in his current job as a call-center technical support representative).

I also told Celso that lately, I had also been pleasantly surprised to learn that American English accent training is being taught in an even more massive way in India, particularly in Bangalore. India, having been colonized by the British for almost 200 years, has a strong English-language heritage like the Philippines, but most people in India happen to have such a pronounced natural singsong accent when speaking in English. That accent therefore needs to be neutralized for globalization’s sake, and I told Celso that I had come across a detailed account of how this is being done. This was in an early chapter of Thomas Friedman’s bestselling book on globalization, The World is Flat, that I am currently reading.

Friedman recounts that English-language trainers drill the Indians with stupendously complicated English-language phonetic drills. Among them is this mean tongue-twister: “Thirty little turtles in a bottle of bottled water. A bottle of bottled water held thirty little turtles. It didn’t matter that each turtle has to rattle a metal ladle in order to get a little bit of noodles.” Indeed, when I tried enunciating this particular phonetic drill, my tongue got so hopelessly tangled inside my mouth. I suppose, though, that the drills are doing wonders to the Indians, for I understand there are now tens of thousands of them serving as call-center agents for North American target markets.

These thoughts that I shared with Celso drew the following rejoinder from him:

“About my interest in how someone develops accents, I want to tell you about an experience I had when I was in Sydney, Australia, in 1966 when the ship I was with was on rest and recreation after a three-month tour in the Tongkin Gulf war zone in Vietnam. For the two weeks that the ship was in port, it was designated as a visiting ship. This meant that civilians could come on board to mingle with the crew and see how the sailors lived; our living quarters, of course, were understandably off-limits.

“Anyway, a group of Filipinos came on board one day. We got into conversations that alternated between Tagalog and English. In one of those conversations, a female Australian among the ship’s crew told me that I had ‘such a beautiful accent.’ Now, that remark really surprised me because I knew I didn’t have an accent; indeed, it was she and the others who had an accent—an Australian one—that they seemed not to be even aware they had. Isn’t that funny?”(August 09, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 9, 2008, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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