For a country that speaks in 36 indigenous tongues, Bolivia has an adept population when it comes to languages, but the nation is still far behind the rest of Nearshore when it comes to English.
Hindered by a disinterested government and a relatively small BPO and ITO sector, Bolivia has been extremely slow in its English language development, but it has been developing on a small scale.
“If you’re looking for volume in English-speaking agents it’s really difficult to scale, but if you go step-by-step you can build extremely good quality agents, both language-wise and on a level of professionalism,” said Luis Ross, Owner of Clear Voice Services, one of the only local call center providers offering services to US clients from Bolivia.
Language Stats and Facts
While Spanish is the official language in Bolivia, spoken by 84% of the population, the rural population speaks either Quechua, Aymara, or one of the other 34 indigenous languages.
The fact that almost no one speaks English is a problem for Bolivians who want to learn, and for the tourists or potential investors who want to be understood. Those who do speak it have an accommodating neutral accent, both in Spanish and English.
University students or professionals are the most common learners of the English language, mainly because they can afford to improve their skills. The country’s high level of poverty is one of the reasons that there are fewer educational possibilities for Bolivians.
Half of the country’s population is indigenous, so their primary focus is on learning Spanish in order to make a life in the cities and urban areas – English is almost worthless for the majority. Most of the Spanish-speaking population has little financial resources as there is also a nationwide lack of job opportunities – something that an improved BPO and call center sector would help address.
Lack of Government Focus
Many schools already provide multilingual education in Bolivia, and the government hopes that, by institutionalizing the practice, students will graduate with better language skills. Even so, while it’s mandatory for Bolivian schools to teach English as a second language, it’s not something that is enforced for a high school diploma.
“The government is doing nothing whatsoever to support the English language,” said Ross. “We tried to do some seminars and a few other things to improve this, but they don’t care or don’t see the potential of the industry.”
There are a handful of bilingual schools, such as the American International School of Bolivia in Cochabamba and The American Cooperative School in La Paz, but these come at a financial burden that most Bolivians do not have access to.
ITO Demand Fostering English Development
On the IT services side, providers in Bolivia are seeing growth from increasing US demand. One example is Avantica, which has 50 people in the team, with plans to grow that to 90 by the end of 2018.
“Our demand is expending a lot in the United States,” said Wilfredo Vargas, General Manager at Avantica Bolivia. “It’s true that in Bolivia most people are not oriented toward the English language, but within the local IT services and software development companies the mindset has changed because of the business we are getting from the US.”
Right now, 90% of the people at Avatica speak English fluently and interact constantly with clients in the US. They are sourced mostly from university with a basic intermediate English level, so the company invests in sending them to an educational institute to learn and practice the language.
According to Vargas, these graduates have great writing and reading skills, but need to be trained in speaking and listening in order to handle complex queries and calls. The company also visits universities and schools to encourage young people to start learning English and join the industry.
Higher Value Services Show Great Potential
Clear Voice Services currently has 48 agents covering some high-level services, such as live interpretations for medical queries. Ross has not struggled with a lack of people, but does find the process of training to be long and drawn out because most people
“There is a large percentage of people studying English with good academic knowledge, but they don’t get the practice in order to process info fast enough for customer service,” said Ross. “Furthermore, the call center industry is not very well-known in Bolivia, so people are misinformed when it comes to job security. Even so, the mentality is changing, and it’s been less challenging in the last year or so. Most of our employees now come from referrals, and it’s been easier to recruit because the reputation of the sector has grown.”
During its recruitment process, the company has been able to ramp up its higher value services, and has doctors interpreting calls for patients and doctors in the US. This kind of high-level service shows that Bolivia has some potential to develop its industry, and, while there is almost no possibility to scale BPO and ITO operations right now, the situation is not as dire as it was 10 years ago.
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.