Interculturalism in Second Language learning has been an interesting area in language instruction. This relatively new approach to language instruction is being explored by various educational sectors in other countries. However, despite the many criticisms, an intercultural approach to second language education has a number of advantages for the learner in the workplace.
Language in the call center industry
The call center industry for one, needs to start exploring the advantages. In the BPO industry, face-to-face, online and phone interactions with native speakers are the fundamental sources of sustainability and growth. In the Philippine context, most of the call centers are customer services departments of banks, insurance companies, retail outlets, IT support and travel agencies with head offices in the US, the UK, India and Australia. Through telecommunications, speakers are brought into contact from diverse socio-economic, geographical and ethno-linguistic backgrounds in this globalized workplace. Complex information and services are then negotiated within the constraints of the telephone and computer screens through English.
Challenges in Call Center Communication
Despite our globally acceptable proficiency in the second language, the widening gap in providing excellent customer service is continually being put to question. Further, the quality of communication between BPO employees and foreign clients has decreased from 78% in 2001 to a low 32.9% this year. (Garcia, 2009); thus severely affecting customer and client satisfaction.
That is why language proficiency has been the main focus of the industry and government discussion in a site where English language capacity is seen by many as a key factor for future expansion and sustainability. In the various BPO companies, training managers and course developers have explored other methods in strengthening, not just the employees’ proficiency in the target language, but also develop a sense of awareness of the native speaker’s culture. This way, communication between employees and foreign clients will be much more interactive and successful.
A call for an intercultural approach in teaching English
This is where an intercultural approach in teaching English comes in. In in-house training units, training managers, course developers and trainers must start to explore possibilities in integrating culture awareness in language and product-specific courses. With the goal of attaining Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC), English training courses for the call center should consider integrating linguistic and cultural learnings to facilitate simple casual conversations to highly formal interactions.
Despite the potential of this approach, it should be noted that there has been criticisms on such kinds of integration. Valdes (1990) rebutted the need to combine culture to language teaching, stating that language instruction, in itself, is already a study on the culture of its native speakers. According to Valdes, exposure to the native speaker’s ethnicity is inevitable whenever learners use the target language in a communicative classroom or environment.
However, by making learners be active analysts and interpreters of cultures (including their own) teachers and trainers help them along the road to independent intercultural analysis and interpretation in a range of situations where they might otherwise be at a loss, and where authoritative guidance in unavailable (Corbett, 2007). Call center employees that have had previous training on culture and communication, once transitioned from training to operations, will be much more adept and skilled in handling customer interactions all by themselves. This promotes Occupational Primacy (OP), the ultimate goal in an Intercultural approach to L2 instruction. Employees who have started to feel more comfortable in interacting with native speakers tend to be more motivated at work. Further, employees working in a global setting who have attained this stage of enculturation views career success as the highest goal (Parson, 1951).
Moreover, learners have various levels of interactions. Taking away the cultural aspect from language instruction may be more of a disadvantage rather than a plus. For elementary and high school students, who will eventually be using English in a community of Filipino speakers, this may not be as important. However, for adult learners who will be using L2 in interacting with a community or business of native speakers, the need is immediate.
This paper will explore the potential of such approach specifically for speaking and listening. Nunan’s (1990) methodologies on second language learning, together with cross-cultural communication techniques, shall be the supporting aspects that will trigger ICC and promote OP among the target learners. As drafted for English communication trainers in call center training departments, this paper will present a framework that will establish culture awareness through language instruction, for employees, and new-hires that will soon be or are already part of call center operations.
II. THEORETICAL/CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
Taking the Intercultural Approach to Second Language Education, as the base, this framework aims to develop Intercultural Communicative Competence or ICC (Corbett, 2007), with Occupational Primacy (Parson, 1951) as the ultimate goal for language learning and application in the workplace. Also, this framework will make use of various communicative classroom techniques and methodologies as proposed by Nunan, (2009) to establish a more learner-centered language experience. As earlier stated, this will be directed to the development of both language and cultural awareness of call center employees, both new-hires and customer-service representatives.
Byram (1997) and Guilherme (2002) ideally view language and culture learning as a way to achieve ICC. The Intercultural Approach to Language Education does not seek to put less importance to the advantages that we have seen in task-based learning or learner-centered syllabuses that promote Communicative Competence (CC). As a matter of fact, it aims to make use of these advantages and enhance the learner’s competencies towards realistic and useful goals. It should be noted, that only a few learners achieve CC in the workplace, but many can achieve valuable skills of observation, explanation and mediation that contribute to ICC.
Culture, Language and Language Learning
In terms of how culture affects language use, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis further establishes the foundations of this framework. The hypothesis’ argues that language as a tool to determine thoughts and ideas of interlocutors are enough to connect language learning to the culture of its native speakers (Whorf, 1956). Having this as a base in concretizing the idea of integrating culture awareness and L2 learning in the call center can ensure the expectations from foreign clients, co-employees and customers.
Types of Interactions
Both types of interactions cover this framework. Interactional and Transactional conversations are present in call center communications. Speaking with co-employees, supervisors and managers may range to informal to formal interactions, thus utilizing interactional talks. On the other hand, conversations with customers and clients are highly transactional. Examples of which are taking orders, providing a steb-by-step process, selling a product, take on a more formal discourse. This transactional type of talk is message oriented, with specific goals such as buying, selling and instructing.
Speaking & Listening: Two Important Skills in Call Center Communication
The framework mainly focuses only on two macro skills that are essential in call center operations. Generally, Speaking and Listening are the more important skills that call center agents, supervisors and managers need to develop in terms of communication.
Speaking, is the most basic skill one expects from a call center employee. In a voice-supported account, interactions are done over the phone (Lockwood, 2006). Further, an L2 learner may be generally assessed on his/her knowledge of the language through actual performance. Since the framework is designed to establish ICC in the call centers, trainers, and course developers should integrate communicative techniques for this skill to prepare the learners for a higher level of communicative competency.
Listening, on the hand is another skill that should be given equal importance. Considering that this is the most basic macro skill in communication, call center employees will gain more if they work on enhancing their active listening skills. Identifying the customer issue or complain, and problem analysis are just two of the many examples that a customer service representative should develop in order to ensure successful communication with customers. In the classroom, trainers should consider learning tasks that will make the learners exposed to comprehensible input and authentic data to ensure that an intercultural approach is provided.
Integration of Communicative Techniques in an Intercultural Language Learning Environment
Various communicative techniques, as proposed by Nunan (2009) can be used to further strengthen the path to ICC and OP. Without limiting the advances of Communicative Language Learning (CLL), this framework will utilize the available sources and advantages of a more communicative learning environment for the learners.
The 3P Instructional Cycle is a common technique that integrates Audiolingualism and the Communicative Approach. It aims to create a more personalized learning experience, without letting go of language structure and rules. The three Ps stand for presentation, practice, and production. Like other ALM techniques, presentation and practice are done through drills and repeat-after-me techniques. Modeling, on the part of the teacher is essential, as this will provide the learners the correct input. Practice is where the learners will provide robotic feedback for checking and evaluation. The practice stage, however, is what makes 3P Instructional Cycle different from other Behavioral-based techniques. Here, the learners apply the structure in a series of application task. In the 3P Instructional Cycle, errors are present during actual performance, especially if the tasks require the creative and relatively unpredictable use of language. This, according to Nunan, should be seen as a natural part of the learning process. In order to indicate the framework’s primary goal, trainers may explore culturally-related tasks to make the learning experience more specific and focused on the learner’s needs.
With the aim of allowing the learners to participate in a “mock” environment where the target language is used and utilized by both native and L2 speakers, Systematic-Functional Linguistics can be used to further enhance learner development through an intercultural language curriculum. Here, the target language is used to facilitate “interactions” within given situations that are specific to work, account and product. Trainers must provide the contexts for the tasks that will be useful for the employees once they have been endorsed to operations. Providing sample forms that agents normally fill out during interactions with customers can be utilized effectively, as language functions in a call center environment are practiced. Other specific language functions may be asking for necessary information, explaining a process, or providing bad news to a customer. Further, vocabularies, grammar and pragmatics of L2 can be explored, as learners and trainers negotiate its meaning according to the target culture.
Listening requires input. As Krashen (1982) suggests, Comprehensible Input is necessary to ensure that language is acquired progressively at the learner’s own pace. Krashen’s view is also relevant in the call center setting. New terminologies, jargons and language structures are presented to adult learners. Also, idiomatic expressions that are commonly used during formal or informal interactions with native speakers should be given equal importance, so as not to cause failure in the communication process. Trainers must ensure that through Comprehensible Input, learners will be able to grasp and utilize these newly learned words and structures to assure quality of communication in operations.
Personalized Listening (PL) is another technique that trainers and developers may explore in the creation of an intercultural language course. This learner-centered technique in teaching active listening is focused on providing appropriate texts/materials for the learners that are relevant to the subject matter, and at the same time, of the interest of the learner. PL gives the learner more control over the material, as he/she chooses which text should be used in a specific listening activity. Further, this highly communicative technique explores the possibility of providing extension tasks that take the listening material as a point of departure (Nunan, 2009). Here, learners can create new texts based on the materials that they have listened to, thus constructing a new dimension to listening exercises. For example, after listening to a sample call, students will be asked to create an interactive scenario between a coach and a coachee, where the coachee will act as the one who did the call.
Utilizing Authentic Data for learning materials is important in a language classroom. Though it is understandable that some materials are account-prescribed or trainer-made, the importance of using realias is undeniable. Nunan points out that exposing learners to authentic texts is important for two reasons. First, non-authentic listening texts differ in certain ways from authentic texts. If trainers are focused on ICC, making use of authentic materials will be much more useful than those that were trainer-made, since these have embedded cultural aspects. Finally, the use of authentic sources triggers more interests from the learners, as the experiences and exposures go beyond the confines of the classroom.
Comparative Studies, such as Contrastive Analyses of L1 and L2 may also be explored occasionally by the trainers and the learners. This technique may be useful in ensuring the knowledge of the differences of the structures and forms of each language. The trainers may also provide culture-related feedback to further explain certain concepts that will help the learner towards ICC.
Upon combining these communicative techniques with the native speakers’ culture, learners will be able to achieve ICC accordingly. Once transitioned to operations, it is expected that proper evaluation of the learner’s performance and quality of communication must be done to assess the effectiveness of the framework. Further, it is expected that learners develop a sense of achievement in their operational tasks in the workplace. Eventually, as the employee further develops his/her intercultural relations during training and actual interface with native speakers, Occupational Primacy is achieved.
Intercultural Communicative Competence is expected among L2 speakers that are directly interacting with native speakers. It is sad to note, that our current standards in learning the L2 has set aside the importance of integrating culture in the study of language. With proper use of communicative techniques and integration of culture awareness, communicative competence takes on a higher form through ICC, something that is more appropriate in interacting with different cultures in a global setting.
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