English Language Skills haunts BPO growth in India

English as a language is being used in India since it became a British colony. According to one estimate, there are 333 million people in India who use English. This advantage of vast English speaking population has resulted in many BPO companies setting shop here. The meteoric rise of India in the global BPO industry map has been a result of this. Now apprehensions are being cast about the English Language Skills of Indians and that is haunting the growth of BPO sector. Even though India has large English speaking population, the irony is that according to National Knowledge Commission hardly 1% of the population use it as a second language.

India in the beginning years of the BPO industry enjoyed the advantage of cost arbitrage and had the advantage of a vast English speaking population. This gave a fillip to the voice based BPO operations. Now over the years it has been observed that countries like Philippines, Malaysia, Latin America and China are fast coming up in the BPO sector and threatening the position of India in Voice based outsourcing. It is believed that China may have more number of people speaking English mainly as it has a population advantage and that the proficiency in English of people there is better than people in India. India fared badly in some of the English Proficiency surveys and it was ranked behind Malaysia and Philippines.

A recent study by British Council says that though there is a growing demand for English Proficiency but there is a gap because of lack of availability of good teachers and quality institutions. According to British Author, David Graddol, India will need more English speaking people in the future so that its economic growth is sustained.

According to estimates nearly 1 million people are employed in the Indian BPO sector and it is expected to grow at annual rate of 15% to 16%. The ratio of voice and non voice based services stands at 60%-40% clearly showing a balance in favour of voice based services. The growth story of India in IT and ITES was scripted successfully because of the vast English speaking population and now the position of India is under threat. There have been a lot of challenges faced by BPO companies in India. India is a country with 20 regional languages and diverse cultures. The accent of English spoken in various parts of the country is different and there have been various complaints from customers in US and UK that they are not able to understand the accent of Indians. This is where countries like Philippines scores.

Though Philippines was a colony of US in the past, the natives there have a neutralized accent which makes it easy for people sitting in US and UK to understand. The other advantage is that they understand the culture of America far better than Indians.

Many steps are taken by the Government of Philippines and the BPO industry there to improve the English speaking skills of the people. An example being, Department of Science and Technology of Philippines is collaborating with a lot of Universities there to create software so that the aspirants can practice American accent.

The government of India needs to take proactive steps so that the English Proficiency of people is increased. Merely creating SEZ for IT and ITES is not going to help our industry to grow but what is needed is a skilled manpower, who are employable and who have good English Proficiency. It is also the duty of the state governments where English is not used extensively to promote the same. Unless and until something is done at the earliest, the success story scripted by many Indian IT and ITES will be a thing of the past and will go down as history.

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  1. Thank you for this article. Do you know if there has been any research done on the cost to companies due to lack of communication skills and cross-cultural competency?  

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