Call centres in India might help US companies cut costs, but there are no guarantees on the quality of services, especially with the way English is spoken by many Indians - their thick accents and harsh consonants often make their speeches incomprehensible to American callers.
Can technology help?
IBM Corp's India Research Lab says it has a solution. The computer services company, which operates large call centre facilities here, has developed a web-based technology that can help improve language skills of operators.
Although technology was initially developed for its call centre employees in India, it has broad applicability for individuals as well as in schools and businesses, IBM officials said.
The technology evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other spoken-language skills, and provides detailed scores for each category. It uses specially adapted speech recognition software to score the pronunciation of passages and the stressing of syllables for individual words.
The technology also consists of voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests, which identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing examples of correct pronunciation and grammar.
This is a first of its kind, said Ashish Verma, who led efforts to develop the technology at IBM's India Research Lab in New Delhi. "Most of the existing solutions are available off-line, where you listen to model speakers and mimic their accents. In our case, we are analysing speech," he said.
Verma said the objective is to help people speak English in an accent-neutral manner.
The need to develop the technology was driven, in part, by IBM's own plans to expand and hire more people in India. Over the next three years, Big Blue plans to invest US$ 6 bn in India, making it a hub for its outsourcing services.
"English has become the common language of the business world, so the ability to communicate effectively in English can dictate success or failure in integrating into the global business environment," said Dan Dias, director of India Research Lab.
Learning conversational English is not easy in countries where it is not the first language. Students speak one language at school and then go back to speaking their first language at home, reinforcing pronunciations from their mother tongue.
In countries like India, not having enough teachers whose mother tongue is English compounds the problem.
IBM's technology is designed for easy learning, allowing students to interact with the tool as if they are playing an online game, Verma said. If a student mispronounces a word, the learning tool can immediately spot it and help correct it, he said.