Archive for September, 2011

Hello you’re speaking to Samia/Sandra, how can I help you?

September 27, 2011 2 comments

One thing that I’ve noticed, especially over the past five years or so, has been the shift among UK businesses to move their call centre support from India-based centres to UK-based centres. I think the first one I noticed was RBS (on a poster saying that all their call-centres were based in the UK. Incidentally, they never moved their call centre operations outside of the UK), and now it seems to be a major selling point on the customer-facing point for businesses and actively talked up in all sorts of advertisements (especially banks).

I’m not entirely why there has been such a paradigm shift, but various reports suggest that customer issues with ‘language frustrations’ played a key role in motivating businesses to move their operations back to the UK. In spite of the number of strategies adopted by overseas call centre staff and training centres, including using British first names, learning about television shows and discussing local weather (some of which were famously parodied in the opening sequence of Slumdog Millionaire), customers seem to have associated Indian-English with incompetence, unprofessionalism and frustration (probably quite unfairly I would say, and a paper by Kingsley Bolton explores the issue of proficiency in more detail). The result has been to relocate call-centres back in the UK in an effort to win back customer support and reverse the declining standards of customer satisfaction, consequently stalling the growth of Indian-based call-centres and its associated infrastructure.

What’s especially surprising is that within the Indian call-centre industry, there has been a drive towards developing a ‘neutral-sounding accent’, something which might be labelled as a ‘regionless international variety’ (Claire Cowie has written an interesting paper based on ethnographic research in a Bangalore training centre for call-centre workers about the idea of ‘neutrality’ and how it’s defined by new and experienced call-centre staff). While I would imagine that developing such an accent would likely involve reducing or omitting some of the salient features of IE (including [v] for /w/ and less retroflexed approximants and plosives), I’d question how far a ‘regionless international accent’ is could actually be a real accent.

One thing which is often down-played by these companies, however, is that these relocations (which are dressed up as a way of offering a higher level of customer service), are often motivated by the fact that they are not making the kinds of savings they thought they would through relocating services outside of the UK. In fact, it’s actually costing businesses more to have their call-centres based in India, as the quote from the Independent report mentions:

There are also pressing financial factors. Companies wowed by the potential cost reductions of moving offshore soon found the expense of managing far-flung operations eating into their savings. Costs are also rising as India’s economy continues to rocket, with attrition rates of up to 35 per cent amongst call centre staff and wages set to balloon by 12 per cent this year. New Call Telecom was explicit last week that its decision to re-locate to Burnley came down to price, and it is by no means the only company feeling the squeeze.

So although it’s financial pressures which are forcing the relocation, it’s being repackaged up as an issue of ‘linguistic competence’ which in many ways furthers the kinds of deeply ingrained sociolinguistic stereotypes which surround speakers of Indian-English (and by extension, non-standard speakers of English).

I wonder whether businesses would have made the switch had the savings made from overseas call-centres been at a high enough level, or whether they would have responded to customer feedback and made the switch based on that?

The Social Linguist

John Locke (redux): Duels and Duets

September 24, 2011 3 comments

Male conversation?

A few days ago, the furor on the interweb surrounding John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets became too much for me to (professionally) ignore, so I dutifully trundled over to Amazon and put my order in. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the premise of it is that men and women “talk differently”. Now although this is something which has been trundled out in language and gender research for a while now (in various guises, but usually concerning conversational strategies), it’s generally accepted that we’re more similar in our speech behaviour than we are different.

To give you a flavour of the book, here’s an excerpt from the dust cover:

When men talk to men, they frequently engage in a type of “dueling”, locking verbal horns with their rivals in a way that enables them to compete for the things they need, mainly status and sex. By contrast, much of women’s talk sounds more like a verbal “duet”, a harmonious way of achieving their goals by sharing intimate thoughts and feelings in private. And because a third, “uni-sex” way of talking never evolved, men and women have to rely on the strategies at their disposal.

Well now, I’m really not sure what to make of all of this… Although Locke is a Professor of Linguistics at Lehman College, CUNY, it seems as though he’s far more of a evolutionary behaviourist-linguist rather than a straight up anthropological linguist or sociolinguist (especially going by his publication record in places like Evolution and Human Behaviour and Behavioural and Brain Sciences), which probably explains his predilection towards a essentialist view of gendered behaviour. What’s really concerning, though, is that he seems almost entirely ignorant of every single development in the field of language and gender research within sociolinguistics. For example, in the bibliography, there is no mention (and I mean no mention) of people like Penny Eckert, Scott Kiesling, Mary Bucholtz, or Kira Hall (edit: there are a few mentions of Jenny Coates, Deborah Cameron and Deborah Tannen’s work, but nothing substantial). There are honourable mentions for both Robin Lakoff (1975) and Labov (1972, 1973), but these are not exactly cutting edge developments any more…

It arrived yesterday, and I’ve had a quick flip through it to get a general idea of the content, but I’m genuinely worried that it’s too far encamped in the ‘evolutionary perspective’ for me to get much out of it, and the fact it doesn’t appear to engage with prevailing theoretical developments in the field of language and gender is just incredible to me. I’ll post a more comprehensive review once I finished it, but in the meantime, you can read the Times Higher Education review if you’re so inclined.

If you’ve already read it, what were your impressions?

P.S. And today is the three-month anniversary of the blog. Huzzah! And I’ve only missed a couple of days posting…

The Social Linguist

Induction Week

September 20, 2011 1 comment

This week saw the start of the School of English induction week at the university, and we’re half-way through with minimal amount of hardship or stress (huzzah!), with what seem quite contented and motivated students. This is especially noteworthy because this year’s induction week was organised by yours truly, and generally, my organisational skills are nothing to write home about (at least if I could find the address). But I managed to put together a good programme of events for them, yesterday a few of our current 2nd and 3rd year students gave the new 1st years their own perspective on being a student in the department, and today we had a reasonably well attended ‘social event’ with fantastic crisps, pretzels and o.j. (of the juice variety, not the Simpson variety).

What I’ve been struck by, though, is the amount of stuff that we have to get through in induction week just to get new students up to speed with all the technical demands of being a student; CICT training, moodle, printing, logging in to the computers, finding out where things are, learning about referencing, academic writing, where the cash points are, how to use the library, JSTOR, LION, where lectures are, how the seminars work, assessments, etc etc etc. It seems almost never-ending and today when I was talking about academic writing, I couldn’t help but think that their poor brains must be on melt-down trying to take in this over-load of information…

And it’s not as though we don’t have a choice in not going over this stuff since it’s so important for students just being able to function effectively. Of course, a lot of them will learn as they go, but we still have to at least flag up the kinds of things that I mention above. Since 1st year students tend not to be particularly inquisitive, if we don’t make them aware that resources like the library exist, I’m sure it would take them the better part of their 1st year to figure out where the library is, and another six months to figure out how to use it.

But just how realistic is it to expect that all of what we cover in induction week will actually stick? What kinds of things to other people cover at their inductions? Are they compulsory or optional? How much detail do you go in about academic writing (I nearly wrote ‘anemic writing’ there… Freudian slip or getting tired?), for example? Are the kinds of things we (i.e. academic staff) think are useful actually useful? What do students think is useful and what would they like to see (we do try and make our induction weeks iterative and build on feedback from previous years)?

Anyway, it would be good to hear people’s thoughts on induction week, either ones you’ve been involved in, ones you’ve attended, or ones that you’re in the middle of. Only 3 days left of mine to go…

The Social Linguist


September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

One thing I struggle with, two years post-PhD, is being able to sort out a proper balance in my work. Generally, the things I do as an academic fall under three categories: research, teaching and administration. Under each of these, I have various things I have to do (and probably more I’ve missed):


  • Journal articles
  • Conference presentations (and abstracts)
  • Books (edited and monograph)
  • Developing ideas
  • Reading up in the field
  • Reviewing articles/chapters
  • Teaching preparation
  • Marking
  • Actual teaching
  • Professional development
  • Meetings
  • Departmental responsibilities (1st year tutor)
  • Office hours
  • Emails
  • Phone calls

What normally happens is that I’m able to work on one general category like a demon, but I find it really difficult to be able to shift and swap out in one week or one day between the different things I have to do. So, during the summer, I was able to do a manic amount of writing (edited book proposal, rewrote and submitted an article, wrote up a research bid, did a book abstract, did a conference abstract), but did very little in terms of attending conferences or presenting at conferences (it’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve presented at a sociolinguistics conference, although not two years since I’ve presented at a conference…). This week, I’ve done loads of teaching preparation (in the process becoming very intimate with Moodle), but my research has suffered and I’ve done zero writing. This is likely to continue to be the case since teaching starts next week which will take me up to December, and I’ve got a few deadlines after Christmas I have to meet, so it’s going to be interesting to see if I actually get some writing done during the semester.

Part of the difficulty is that I only feel like I’m actually making progress when I’m able to properly get stuck in to a task. So when I’m only able to write for an hour, I don’t think I get a great deal of productive work done, and when I’m doing teaching preparation, I have to work on it for a couple of hours to feel like I’m making any progress with it. I worry about how effective and efficient it is that in order to make head way in my work, I have to throw myself completely into it.

Now, I’m not sure how far I’m supposed to be a super-star, all-singing, all-dancing, do-everything-and-never-sleep kind of chap, and I think that in general, I’m doing well to meet the various demands required of me as an academic, but sometimes I can’t help but think ‘should I be doing more?’. The fact that it often comes during those times where I have a number of conflicting demands pulling me in various directions which prevent me from getting my teeth stuck in to a task can’t be coincidental, so I suppose I have to try and find ways of dealing with this.

Oh, and right now I’m not able to type as freely as I’d like due to a sore right hand (and those with smutty minds will make of that what they will…). I think I bashed a nerve during my krav maga class a couple of weeks ago and my pinkie and ring finger on my right hand feel really stiff and sore, so typing is more difficult than normal. If anything, this has forced me to stop cracking my knuckles, but I hope that things return to normal sooner rather than later so this semester doesn’t become any more difficult.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research, Writing Tags: ,