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Hola! Asian Call Centers Lure Back Spanish
Hola! Asian Call Centers Lure Back Spanish
MANILA: Leaving Nanjing to study in the Philippines, Chinese student Wu Junda chose an unlikely subject – Spanish, an unpopular language of a former colonial power. And therein lies a story of global transformation.
Most Filipinos have long viewed the Spanish language as a useless relic of nearly 350 years of colonial oppression. Indeed, many students cheered back in 1987, when the Aquino administration scuttled compulsory Spanish lessons in the nation’s universities.
But that Chinese student, who now calls himself Rico Wu, parlayed his Spanish skills into a steady job at a Spanish-speaking call center agent in Manila. He worked overtime fielding calls from consumers in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the US – where Hispanics currently comprise 15 percent of the population, the country’s fastest-growing minority group. “I loved Spanish, I just wanted to keep practicing,” Wu explains. Hooking up with a local business partner, Wu then launched a private language school to encourage young Filipinos to don those headsets, too,” says the 30-year-old founder of the Bridge Language Solutions. “The trend in the Philippines is that everyone goes abroad. We want to keep the Filipinos in the country, with a job,”
So far, Spanish has been merely an afterthought in the swift rise of the Philippines as a global doyenne for voice-based outsourcing work. English has been the top ticket to success for these 200,000 employees. Industry analysts say that clients increasingly prefer the Philippines to India in tackling consumer calls due to neutral accents, patience and cultural affinity with Americans. In response to client demand, some Indian outsourcing firms are even establishing units in the Philippines, staffed with locals.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the call center. A vanguard of Filipinos discovered that they can earn double, even triple, the amount that their counterparts receive if they can trill phrases like “¿Puede darme su número de tarjeta?” Or, can you give me your card number? On-line job ads popped up as companies like Stream Global Services, Convergys, Sutherland Global Services and Sykes Asia, Inc. figured that assembling teams of bilingual English/Spanish-speakers would be a worthwhile experiment. Those ads caught the attention of Filipinos hailing from Zamboanga province in the south and Cavite province near Manila, where a thriving vernacular called Chavacano – a mixture of Spanish vocabulary and Tagalog grammar – supports a more convincing accent.
Sneering at Spanish has thus become passé. “I appreciate the fact that Spanish is part of the Filipino culture,” says Zamboanga native Emily Querubia Peji, a 28-year old mother of three who has used her Spanish at three different call centers in Manila. Having soaked up Spanish from her grandfather on his coconut farm, she’s keen to pass it on to her own children. Peji organized internet Meetup sessions around town to practice Spanish and advised friends that they could snag higher salaries if they attended classes at the Instituto Cervantes, which has run classes in Manila tailored to call-center workers and corporate employers since 2008. The nonprofit institution, founded by the Spanish government, draws up to 7,000 students annually for all levels of proficiency. Such classes attract Filipino doctors, nurses and caretakers for the elderly, who aim to broaden job prospects in the US and Europe.
And now governments of the Philippines and Spain are teaming up to upgrade access to Spanish at 50 high schools across the Philippines. In April, the Instituto Cervantes will begin training an additional 100 Spanish teachers and some 8,000 students at those schools, through 2014. In subsequent years, “the program is expected to be mainstreamed to all secondary education in the Philippines,” according to Francisco Javier Menéndez, education advisor to the Embassy of Spain in the Philippines.
“With this initiative, we desire to equip our students with new skills that will allow them to become highly competitive in the global marketplace,” Jesli Lapus, the Philippines’ education secretary, proclaimed in a press release.
Ironically, Spain’s linguistic proselytizing has arrived a bit late. Ruling supreme from the mid-16th to the 19th centuries, the Spanish didn’t bother to teach their mother tongue to the Filipino masses – although they did insist on mass adoption of Spanish names. Catholic services were held in local languages. Fluency in Spanish was primarily confined to elite clans close to the colonial powers, including large landowners and mixed-race, or “mestizo” families. This proved to be a stark contrast to the subsequent American colonial policy, which spread English through a broad network of schools in the archipelago.
Post-independence, Spanish limped along. “Filipinos were taught grammar drills without any attempt to make people communicate in Spanish,” observes Ambeth Ocampo, chairman of the National Historical Institute in Manila. “If we were taught the way Instituto Cervantes teaches today, you would have a big Spanish-speaking population.”
Instead, it’s a drop in the bucket. Among a population of 92 million Filipinos, there are an estimated 439,000 Spanish speakers, according to the Atlas de la Lengua Española en el Mundo, published in 2007. The age spread remains unclear, but those under 35 would be a minority. In addition, an estimated 607,000 people speak Chavacano.
Such constraints have led to mixed forecasts from analysts and clients about the scope for the Philippines to score in the Spanish-speaking market.
Indian players are dubious. “I’d be very surprised if Spanish is outsourced to the Philippines, because that’s not natural,” says Som Mittal, president of NASSCOM, a trade group for India’s IT and business-process outsourcing industry. And while a smattering of call centers and other outsourcing firms hire Spanish speakers, there is no strategy to pump up the numbers – despite the November 2009 launch of a vast Instituto Cervantes in New Delhi. Some Indian companies have been keen to explore new markets in Mexico and Latin America, yet such firms have opted to focus on more lucrative software and maintenance services based in near-shore centers in Mexico, with many looking to exit voice-based processing in the long run, anyway.
An Everest Group analyst dismisses the numbers of qualified Spanish speakers in the Philippines as “negligible.” That view is shared by Duane Cummins, regional vice president for Asia Pacific Operations of Stream Global Services, who cites the difficulties of scaling up in the Philippines and adds that his firm would prefer shifting work to centers in Latin America.
Others, however, are not ready to say “Adios” to aspiring Filipinos. “We think there is good potential. This could turn very quickly, due to a lot of pent-up demand for Spanish work from the US,” argues Vinu Kartha, vice-president of the research firm Tholons. Call center costs in the Philippines are 20 to 30 percent lower than in Mexico. And it could be difficult to scale up in smaller countries like Costa Rica and Colombia. As a rising star in business-processing outsourcing, Kartha predicts that Brazil offers the most formidable competition.
Meanwhile, jitters are noticeable among the Filipinos who now earn a premium for handling Spanish calls. “More people are jumping on the bandwagon and studying the language,” frets a 35-year-old employee in Makati, fearing a glut.
The job offers other perks. Calls from Mexico tend to be mellower than those from demanding, often irate Americans who need services in English. Recalls Wu, the Nanjing native: “I never got yelled at by a Mexican.”