The small Caribbean nation of Belize is home to a modest but growing BPO community, largely thanks to English being the national language. This advantage is somewhat rare in Latin America, so how is Belize capitalizing on it and what language challenges does the industry still face?
“I’ve outsourced work all over the world, but the English in Belize is better than any destination I’ve seen,” said Scott Newman, CEO at Transparent BPO.
More than One Native Language
Although English is the language of instruction in public schools, Spanish is also a frequently spoken first language, which has created a language barrier for some students who are not very skilled with English. Even so, this is more concentrated up north as you approach the Mexican border.
On top of that, the Belize Kriol language, which is a combination of many different languages, is prominent across the country. While Kriol English includes just enough Standard English for those who are not fluent to almost understand what is being said, the pronunciation used by Belizeans who are speaking Kriol is different than Standard English.
When factoring in all industries associated with English, like tourism, which drives 50% of the economy, Belize is well tied to the US, as most tourists are coming from the States and from Canada. This is not surprising when you consider that the foreign exchange rate is fixed between US and Belize and has been for decades.
So, if English is so strong in the country, what are the problem areas in perfecting its use for faster growth in BPO?
Building a Contemporary Dialect
Looking at some of the specific word usage and speech patterns, people in Belize use a version of King’s English, which is somewhat outdated and quite off-putting for US customers.
“It’s not really an accent thing as we look at speech patterns, but more of the way that people address each other,” said Pat Ricken, Director of Training, QA and Leadership Development at Transparent BPO. “From day one, we teach people not to use titles – Miss, Mr, and Mrs. – with the first name, such as “Miss Pat” as an example. This is a dead giveaway that the agent is not based in the US.”
Furthermore, Belizeans tend to use the word “kindly” instead of “please”, which is another term that sets off an alert with US customers, according to Ricken.
“It’s also common to hear the use of respectful terms like “sir”, but on a call this turns people off,” she said. “To overcome this, we train people to either use first names, or just not use names at all.”
There are few letters that Belizeans struggle with because of the Caribbean culture, according to Newman. “For example, when pronouncing “th” and “r” in the word “three”, it sounds like “tree”. This is something we train for at Transparent and we’re seeing good results,” he said.
“Even so, there’s a big difference between just being able to speak English and immersing yourself in American culture. Belizeans are able to have full conversations about American culture and politics, and no-one would know that they weren’t from the US. Our clients regularly refer to them as accent neutral.”
Government and Industry Collaboration
When it comes to writing, Newman points out that the ability to write clearly is good, as well as the reading comprehension, but, like most developing countries, he sees that there needs to be more emphasis on bringing them up to speed with new technologies at school.
“Typing words per minute tends to be on the lower side,” he said. “There is certainly not an inability to construct sentences and use proper punctuation and grammar, but with additional training in technology in the school system, we could see a marked improvement. Growth has been good for Transparent BPO – in October, we hired 200 personnel. While access to the labor pool has been great, and quality has been high, there is still a chance for us to grow business further and offer more jobs.”
Transparent BPO, along with the country’s investment promotion agency Beltraide, and the Belize Training and Employment Centre (BTEC), has been meeting with the government this year to help fine tune the curriculum with more focus on strengthening BPO talent.
Both government and industry players clearly see an opportunity for Belizeans to further their understanding of the contact center industry, so this continued focus should increase the availability of agents and strengthen an already strong pool of English-speaking talent.
Check out other countries in this Nearshore English Evolution series by clicking here. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic, so please join the conversation in the comments below.