Call Centre Communication Research (CCCR)
Call Centre Communication Research (CCCR)

Abstract & General Aims

  • Recently, offshore outsourcing to call centres has become an integral part of many multi-national companies, and yet little is known about the language requirements, the language constructed and language training needs of these call centres. Research into the language of call centres is extremely limited.
  • This study aims to provide a pilot study which investigates the discourse of call centres and specifically focusing on the generic and lexico-grammatical features present in these texts.
  • The data will be collected from a range of call centres in Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and India and from a variety of perspectives. The data will include:
    1. an ethnographic study where call centre operators are shadowed
    2. interview data with a range of stakeholders
    3. a text analysis of transcribed telephone interactions focusing on the generic structure, lexico-grammar, cross-cultural differences, and points of communication breakdown


  • The findings will be relevant for academia especially in the fields of business and management studies; the call centre industry itself; pedagogy and training. The implications and benefits are far reaching, as the number of call centres expands and more graduates become involved in this industry.



Pilot Study ¡V English Call Centres in the Philippines


  • Although communication is the heart of the call centre industry, research in the area tends to be focused on labour relations, unionisation, control, systems information and emotional labour (Taylor et al., 2002). In addition, within the field of applied linguistics only two studies are available which refer directly to the language of call centres (Cameron, 2000, and Aldophs et al., 2004).
  • Although communication is the heart of the call centre industry, research in the area tends to be focused on labour relations, unionisation, control, systems information and emotional labour (Taylor et al., 2002). In addition, within the field of applied linguistics only two studies are available which refer directly to the language of call centres (Cameron, 2000, and Aldophs et al., 2004).
  • Initial data has been collected from a large-scale call centre in the Philippines. The data has been partially transcribed and partially analysed. The aim of this research is to consolidate the research which has been initiated to complete the transcription of the data and to conduct an analysis of:
    • the generic structure - with clear examples of the different stages in the discourse
    • lexico-grammar ¡V to tag the corpus using a SFL software package
    • points of communication breakdown


The aim of the research is to investigate the call centre discourse from the following perspectives:

  • the range generic structure of call centre texts
  • the key lexico-grammatical features
  • points of breakdown in the communication


  • The findings from the research will be shared with organisation directly involved in the study. Research findings will be shared with the applied linguistic community and other interested parties through paper presentations at international conferences and through at least one publication in applied linguistic international journal such as English for Specific Purposes.
  • In addition the findings from this research could be used to develop and support proposals for further research in the area.


English Call Centres in the Philippines, Hong Kong and India


  • The aim is to collect at least 100 calls from each of the following places: the Philippines, Hong Kong and India.
  • Data, audio taped conversations between the agent and customer, will be collected from each organisation involved.


  • To investigate call centre discourse across three regions in Asia, i.e. Hong Kong, Philippines and India.
  • Focus on a text analysis transcribed telephone interactions analyzing the generic structure, lexico-grammar, and points of communication breakdown.
  • To develop closer collaborative links with the industry.

Research plan and methodology

The research is to investigate the communication from the following perspectives ¡V

  • the range and type of discourse and genres across a range of industries, both inbound and outbound call centres
  • the key lexico-grammatical features

Text Analysis

  • A detailed text analysis of salient linguistic features will be undertaken. Applying Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) offers a theory of language well suited to text analysis and application. SFL applied to the deconstruction of texts can make ¡§explicit the relations between meaning constructed at clause level and meanings at the ¡¥larger' levels (paragraphs and text) which in turn can be systematically related to the specified elements of the context¡¨ (Harvey, 1993:25).
  • The texts, audio-taped transcriptions of call centre transactions, collected will be investigated as follows:
  • Generic analysis, where the overall structure of a text is analysed for the function different stages perform.
  • Lexico-grammatical features: using a systemic functional approach (Halliday, 1994) the text will be analysed for interpersonal, ideational and textual features. We suggest that the construal of interpersonal meaning within the text is crucial to the success of the call centre discourse. As pointed out by Gimenez e-mails and others, overtly interpersonal texts are becoming more dependent on ¡§flexibility, informality and efficiency¡¨ (Gimenez, 2000:249). He suggests that the established tradition of teaching formulaic writing to business students needs to change. This could also be applicable to call centre discourse where there is a move away from ¡¥scripted texts'. Interpersonal construal of meaning will be investigated further and undertaken by conducting a close analysis of the interpersonal metafunction at a clause level and the adoption of Martin's (2000) and Martin and Rose's (2003) appraisal system.


  • This study investigates the discourse of call centres and specifically focusing on the generic and lexico-grammatical features present in these texts. The research will provide a useful insight into the language of call centres both from an industry's perspective and for the field of applied linguistics.



Chinese Call Centres


Extremely limited information is available about the language of English and Chinese call centre communication.

The data will be collected from different call centre industries in Hong Kong , Guangzhou , Shenzhen, and if possible Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere in China .

The data and analysis include:

  1. The development of Cantonese and Putonghua corpora.
  2. Transcription of audio files of authentic calls.
  3. A analysis of: generic structure, lexico-grammar, corpus linguistics, cross-cultural differences, and points of communication breakdown

This study aims to provide a detailed investigation of the discourse of Chinese speaking call centres and compare the data collected with English data collected from call centres in other related studies.

Aims and objectives

To investigate the range and type of linguistic realizations in Chinese speaking call centre communication across a range of industries.

To develop comparable corpora Cantonese and Putonghua call interactions.

To compare and investigate the similarities and difference of Chinese and English call centre interactions.

We will investigate call centre discourse in Hong Kong and mainland China and focus on:

  1. The development of Cantonese and Putonghua corpora.
  2. The development and comparison of English speaking call centre corpora with Chinese speaking call centre corpora.
  3. A comparison of the genre and lexico-grammatical features of the corpora.
  4. A comparison of intercultural and cross-cultural communication.

The findings will be relevant for academia especially business and management studies, the call centre industry, pedagogy and training. The implications and benefits for academia and students are far reaching.

Plan for Collaboration

The proposed study will work closely with the call centre industry in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China .

The findings from the research will be shared with organisations participating in the research. Workshops, seminars, and reports will be offered to collaborating organisations, dependent on requests.


English Call Centres in Asia

Background & Objectives

  • Offshore outsourcing of work to call centres is a recent trend for many multi-national companies, and this industry is driven by communication between the Customer Service Representative (CSR) and the client / customer. Although communication is the heart of this industry, there is little research that addresses communication. Many companies outsourcing their call centre functions offer communications training, but these programmes are often developed by non language specialist who wrongly assume that English language problems are either caused by poor grammar or poor pronunciation.
  • The purpose of this research is to investigate the multifaceted features which contribute to the communicative success of call centre discourse. All features related to the construction of language, i.e. the lexico-grammar, the genre, the text, reflect the context and the culture, play an important role in understanding the communicative nature of call centre discourse.
  • In this ambitious study we apply a systemic functional linguistic (SFL) theory of language and use the SFL findings to understand the relationship between the language choices and the lexico-grammatical, semantic and cultural meanings (status, power, identity and ideology) constructed in a number of different sites throughout Asia, i.e. Hong Kong, Mainland China, The Philippines and India.

Key Issues

  • Call centre discourse will be investigated in a range of industries and countries in Asia , where the CSR is predominantly a non-native speaker of English (NNS) and the customer is from an English speaking country. We focus specifically on:
  • The genre and lexico-grammatical features of the CSR-customer discourse in call centres, as well as intercultural and cross-cultural communication between the native English speaker (NS) customer and the NNS CSR.
  • The linguistic features that cause a breakdown in communication, i.e. at which point there is a breakdown and what is happening in the lexico-grammar; to what extent the breakdown is related to lexico-grammar, culture, status, power and identity.

Problems Addressed

  • Disparity between linguistic training, quality assurance and authentic language (Forey and Lockwood, 2004): This disparity may cause many of us to experience frustration when completing a service transaction over the phone. Raised voices and frazzled emotions are some of the familiar feelings we confront when talking to CSRs. There are no other semiotic systems such as facial expression, body language, gesture to help understand the meaning of the text; frequently frustration is expressed quite openly.
  • The training offered to NNS agents may be part of the reason for dissatisfaction from the customer. Language training tends to emphasise discrete grammatical features, accent neutralisation, and formulaic expressions, e.g. expressions of empathy to the customer. There is often no intercultural training offered, and no language training at the level of generic patterns or complete texts. For example, the quality assurance (QA) procedures in some organisations may not necessarily be able to identify a breakdown in communication or a frustrated / dissatisfied customer. Many QA procedures deconstruct the transaction to such a discrete level that the QA process becomes meaningless, e.g. how many times the agent uses the customer's name in the communication may be used as an assessment tool of interpersonal effectiveness.
  • There is clearly a need to investigate call centre language from a discourse and cultural level. As suggested below, Systemic Functional Linguistic (SFL) theory is an appropriate tool for analysis as it deals with complete texts within a specific social context and provides the tools to understand how meaning is constructed at the lexico-grammatical level and how these choices affect contextual, cultural and social variables (Halliday, 1994).
  • The profession is developing faster than the research in the area: Cameron's (2000) suggestion that the language in call centres is scripted, institutionalized and inflexible needs to be further explored. Clearly the CSR role is becoming more demanding, as the degree of expertise and professional demands have increased. The discourse is changing from a time-bound provision of information tasks to a more diverse and interactive exchange of complex professional information. Call centre customer expectations have increased, e.g. the customer expects the CSR to have all necessary data and responses immediately available (Knights and McCable, 2003). Only two studies within applied linguistics exist (Cameron, 2000, Adolphs et al 2004), but there is a need for more informed knowledge and greater linguistic expertise in this area to reflect the recent global developments. For example, in India and the Philippines , university courses focusing on call centres are offered and yet little, if anything, is known about the discourse of this profession. Information Enabled Technology Services (ITES) industry groups are desperately trying to list language communication competency frameworks. These are meaningless and arbitrary in the absence of research.
  • Cross-cultural issues: The cultural background, in the context of this study, is very different, with the customer usually being a NS and the CSR an Asian, NNS. Frequently there is little cross-cultural understanding of the interlocutor's cultural background. Moreover, this lack of intercultural knowledge may be one of the reasons for a breakdown in communication. Frequently, CSRs are given advice, such as ¡§be more confident¡¨ and yet no explanation of how this can be realised linguistically is offered (Bain et al., 2002).


  • A detailed and systematic study of call centre discourse will be extremely relevant for:
  • Pedagogy ¡V The findings can be used to inform pedagogic training materials used within education and industry.
  • Academia ¡VThis study will extend the existing body of knowledge and findings will be relevant for Business, English and other faculties. As the number of call centres increase, graduates will inevitably be involved in the operations of call centres.
  • Service industry and outsourcing companies ¡V The project will provide a more in-depth understanding of communication patterns, inform the development of knowledge and training offered within the industry and specifically for CSRs, and assist the development of training and call centre management strategies. The findings will also be valuable to the others in the service industry, as the discourse is comparable yet distinct. For example, currently intercultural training packages for this industry relate to little more than facts and figures about the host country without addressing more crucial intercultural features.
  • International academic community and industry - A steering committee has been established which will increase international co-operation in the field by including academics and members of the industry who will advise, guide and share a greater understanding of the discourse of call centres.



Comparative Studies

Future Plans:

We will compare English and Chinese data collected. The comparative studies will focus on comparing:

  1. structure of discourse in different languages and from different countries
  2. word and grammatical patterns in the different texts and data sets, i.e. the choices in the lexico-grammar,
  3. common patterns in the data sets, i.e. by applying corpus linguistics
  4. cross-cultural differences in and between the data
  5. variation and/or differences in communication breakdown