Specialized ESL teaching for call centers in the Philippines

James Ang Lu and Jenny Ang Lu


This article by James Ang Lu and Jenny Ang Lu analyzes the development of call centers in the Philippines and assesses the needs of students who are training to be employed as call center representatives. James Ang Lu works as a software engineer in a business process outsourcing (BPO) firm in Makati, Philippines. He studied electronics and communications engineering at Saint Louis University in Baguio, Philippines. Jenny Ang Lu studies TESOL in the Graduate School of English at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. She is currently enrolled in the Graduate School of Intercultural Studies at the International University of Kagoshima on a one-year student exchange program. She works as a translator, voice artist, and English instructor to adults.

Specialized ESL teaching for call centers in the Philippines

Business process outsourcing (BPO) first gained popularity in the US and Canada in the late 1990s as a business strategy to economize (Friginal, 2007). To cut the costs of routine business processes such as replying to customer questions by telephone, providing technical support, and offering medical transcription, businesses began outsourcing these functions to employees located in low-wage countries. The overseas companies provide the same service but at a much lower cost. Currently the main opportunities for BPO employment using the English language are in the Philippines and India, where English is a second language rather than a foreign language (Schoenberger, 2004).

The demand for outsourcing has led to a proliferation of BPO firms, such as call centers, in the Philippines. A call center is a centralized office where a large volume of requests and orders are received and forwarded by telephone operators. There has been a steady increase in the number of BPO firms found not only in major cities but also in rural areas in the Philippines. Relocating to rural areas lowers the operating costs for the BPO firms. The increase in demand for fluent English speakers at call centers has led to a renewed focus on how the teaching of ESL can be specialized for Filipinos hoping to work in call centers.

The attractive compensation packages offered by call centers are simply irresistible to recent university graduates. Perks usually include overtime pay, nighttime supplemental pay, medical coverage, productivity bonus, signing bonus, commuter reimbursement, and insurance. Evidence of the career’s attractiveness may be seen in job fairs where BPO firms are dominant among companies that hire new employees (Uy, 2004). The ESL proficiency of many job-seekers educated at universities, however, falls short of the proficiency required by the call centers. Less than 10 percent of the applicants for call center positions are actually hired as call center representatives (Offshoring Times). The level of ESL training provided by schools in the Philippines does not favorably compare to the English proficiency that is demanded by BPO employers, according to Monsod (2003). As a result, specialized ESL schools have sprouted across the Philippines.

Many of the new schools offering training in communication have been established by the call centers. Recognized as call center academies, these institutions provide free ESL training to call center aspirants on the condition that, after they graduate from the academy, they will immediately accept employment by the call center and work for a minimum number of months.

These call center training schools focus on four areas of the English language: pronunciation, speech techniques, vocabulary and grammar, and listening and comprehension. Pronunciation is a main focus of the training. Teachers of pronunciation emphasize the articulation of words. Native speaker-like pronunciation is very important for call center representatives when communicating with clients who expect to hear the English language as it is spoken in the US or Canada. The instruction in speech techniques emphasizes intonation, rate, pitch, and loudness. Mastery of these techniques ensures that messages are properly communicated over the phone. Students are encouraged to avoid any chance of misunderstanding.

To efficiently get messages across to customers, trainees are encouraged to learn the foundations of grammar and acquire as much vocabulary as they can before starting work. Basics such as sentence structure and subject-verb agreement are the main weaknesses of Filipinos who speak in English. The testing of vocabulary and grammar is a major hurdle during the training. Listening comprehension is also a challenging part of the training. Variable accents and different speech techniques can make comprehension of callers’ speech a frustrating task; therefore trainees are exposed to varying ways messages are spoken.

The main goal of the training is to avoid letting the caller know that he or she is speaking to a non-native English speaker, and to encourage the caller to believe that the call center representative is a native speaker. The training focuses on enabling the trainee to properly handle telephone calls in the actual call center environment. Since most of the clients of Philippine call centers are from the US, it is important for the call center representative to be sensitive to American culture and to fully comprehend American native speakers. Thus, the teachers in the call center academiesare usually native-speakers, who facilitate a series of training exercises that represent real life call-handling situations.

Call center training is rigorous and not everyone who is trained will eventually succeed in becoming a call center representative. Graduates from call center training schools have a competitive edge over other applicants, including university graduates who have majored in languages, because they have the practical experience as well as the foundation needed by such firms in their everyday operations. The number of call center academies will likely grow in the future at the same pace as call centers and outsourcing grow.


Friginal, E. (2007). Outsourced call centers and English in the Philippines. World Englishes, 26(3), 331-345.

Monsod, S.C. (2003, December 12). How’s our English? Philippine Daily Inquirer Online. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http://www.inq7.net/opi/2003/dec/13/text/opiscmonsod-1-p.htm

Philippines introduce 'call center finishing schools' to tap BPO job prospects. Offshoring Times. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http://www.offshoringtimes.com/Pages/2006/BPO_news1067.html

Schoenberger, C.R. (2004). Against all odds: Time is running out for Earthlink to prove broadband pays. Forbes, 173(6), 46-49.

Uy, V. (2004, October 8). Call centers join job fair in Manila; 20,000 workers wanted. Philippine Daily Inquirer, p.A12.