In this article, you’ll learn the tip number one and the most important method on how to improve your English for call center.
As a call center applicant, you normally have two main goals to be able to talk to your customers: to speak English spontaneously and to acquire the accent you want.
If you hate reading, watch the video version I recorded for this article. Otherwise, keep reading.
Before I dive into the nitty-gritty of this technique, allow me to explain the difference between how native English speakers learn English versus how Filipinos learn English.
Native English Speakers vs. Non-Native Speakers
Because English is their mother tongue, native English speakers (British, Australians, Canadians, and Americans) learn to speak English before they even study grammar at school. They learn it through listening.
They don’t study grammar rules; the grammar rules come only later once they start school. And yet, they speak fluent English. Sure, their parents might tell them how to say certain words but the great 99% majority of it came to their heads by listening to adults.
On the other hand, Filipinos (and other non-native English speakers) learn English the opposite way. We first learn the grammar before we learn how to speak and most of the time, not even fluently.
Instead of listening, we usually learn English by reading and writing. And when we do listen, we usually listen to our Filipino teachers and so we acquire their accent.
Disclaimer: I’m not badmouthing our Filipino teachers who work as hard in school teaching their students, as well as at home, writing their lesson plans. This is never about that. The English our teachers teach at school is enough for us to generally function in a world where English is the international language. But not necessarily English in the call center industry. And that’s totally fine. They were never specifically hired to teach us call center English, anyway!
I’m also not saying that we should ignore reading and writing altogether. These, too, are important; they serve their own purpose that listening cannot provide.
What I’m saying is, they’re just not as effective as listening when it comes to acquiring a certain accent and being able to speak automatically. It’s just that most of us have done too much reading and writing but very little listening. And it’s time that we change that.
What listening does to your English
1. Listening helps you think in English.
When a non-native English speaker (who is not fluent) speaks English, two things happen: first, the speaker thinks in vernacular; he then translates that vernacular thought into English. Before the thought is even turned into speech, there’s a delay. The process isn’t automatic.
But if you constantly listen in English, you begin to internalize the language into your brain When you think and reply to conversations, you begin to instantaneously pour out your thoughts in English without even making an effort.
Listening in English trains your brain to think in English. As a result, you don’t have to first think in vernacular then go through the process of translating it.
So the more you listen in English, the easier it is to think and speak in English. It would come naturally to you. Remember, speaking should come naturally! And listening will definitely help you accomplish that.
2. Listening helps you capture the “music” and “feel” of the sound patterns.
By sound patterns, I mean the pronunciation, the rising and falling intonation, the enunciation, the subtle twists of the tongue that makes the difference between mill and meal, fill and feel, tick and teak, tuck and tack, stick and steak.
Not to mention the identical spelling but different pronunciation between read and read and lead and lead. And don’t even get me started on the word stress between address and address, and conduct and conduct.
But when you’re mainly learning English through reading and writing, it’s almost impossible to notice these differences even if you were well-versed with the pronunciation rules.
Reading will teach you new vocabulary. Writing will help you organize your thoughts. But listening will help you distinguish the difference between sounds that would have gone unnoticed if you were learning through reading and writing.
3. Listening helps you acquire the accent you want.
On my first day taking calls, I was so nervous. Like everybody else, when I’m nervous, my English gets worse.
One customer said she could barely understand me. She said that my accent was too heavy. Thinking that I’m French, she started talking to me in French. Obviously, it made things more awkward. Because I’m not French; I’m a Filipina and we were not even allowed to tell our customers that we’re in the Philippines! (You know how it is!)
Right then and there, the reality dawned on me: My English was bad; my accent even worse. And I knew I had to do something about it. I couldn’t imagine spending my entire shift listening to customers complaining about my accent. It was humiliating and just wasn’t sustainable.
Please note that before working in a call center, I was already working hard on my English. My method went like this:
I would read a book out loud and while doing so, try very hard to read like an American. For every new word I encounter, I had a dictionary ready where I could look up the definition. I would then write the new word in my notebook. Lastly, I would write in my diary and intentionally use the new words I learned. It widened my vocabulary but did very little for my accent.
Unfortunately, there was one big hole with this method: I wasn’t listening to a native English speaker; I was only listening to myself. I was modeling myself, not a native English speaker. So if there was any progress made to my accent at all, it was very little.
The good thing was, my salary at the call center finally allowed me to spare some money for internet café sessions. From YouTube, I would download videos of native English speakers talking, then convert them to mp3, and just spend all the free time I had listening. No pens, no papers, just me and my earphones.
I think it’s accurate to say that I got so obsessed with acquiring the accent that I also paid attention to my customers’ accents and picked the ones I wanted to copy.
Within months, I got more sensitive to the subtle sounds and accents that I finally got better at mimicking the “safe” accent or the accent that’s commonly understood by most English speakers.
So if your goal is to acquire a certain accent, then spend the majority of English learning through listening.
4. Listening helps you unlearn bad speaking habits.
Just as you’re learning the correct speaking habits, you’ll also learn to unlearn the bad speaking habits through listening. You begin to correct the wrong and bad speaking habits you’re used to and replace it with the right ones.
5. Listening helps with grammar.
This will probably surprise you but listening does help you improve your grammar. To illustrate my point, read the following four sentences out loud and see how they make you feel after reading them. Try not to think about grammar. Just read them and see how they make you feel after hearing them.
- I knows.
- She understanded the lesson.
- You eats.
- They eated yesterday.
Obviously, these are all grammatically wrong.
But how exactly did you know? Was it because you manually checked the grammar? Or was it because of that nagging feeling that something didn’t sound right with sentences?
I am willing to bet that it’s the latter — that something didn’t sound right. Because these words are so common that we hear them all the time, we develop a prefabricated form of these words that another sound will never sound right. That’s how we know that something is wrong with the grammar.
If you frequently listen to improve your English, this ability to recognize wrong grammar even before you manually check the grammar rules will be amplified. You gain a sense of what sounds right and what doesn’t.
You will automatically know that it’s not supposed to be I knows but I know; not She understanded but She understood, not You eats but You eat, and certainly not They eated but They ate.
How to improve your English by listening
You might say, “But I have been watching English movies and listening to English audio to no avail. My English still hasn’t improved!” Well, in this section are my tips on how you could maximize listening so that it works in your favor instead of just wasting your time.
1. Listen to casual English conversations.
I got a comment on my YouTube channel the other day saying that I should refrain from using wanna, gonna, and lemme when speaking because they don’t sound “professional”.
Translation: Feedback. Please refrain from using slang words like wanna, gonna, lemme. Newbies tend to copy and it does not sound professional. They hurt the ears.
Hmm, I strongly disagree with this.
Forget the formal English you learned in school! Focus on listening to daily, casual conversations. This is exactly the English that you will be using every single day to talk to customers.
You are not delivering the news here, people! Nor are you writing a poem. You’re having an actual conversation and your customers expect you to talk like they would (minus the cursing of course!).
Familiarize as much slang and colloquials as you can. Do not be horrified to even listen to double negatives or even triple negatives. The more you know about them, the more you’re going to benefit from them and the less ignorant you become.
Another point in this comment I slightly disagree with: that gonna, wanna, and lemme don’t sound professional. Well, they certainly don’t belong to formal English. But should call center agents go as far as avoiding these just to sound “professional”?
Absolutely not. In fact, practically everybody uses these in daily conversation. A quick search in Google confirmed my belief:
As far as I know, everyone seems to use it. It’s like an unavoidable speech habit, that even the “educated people” have.
It’s called “assimilation”, and refers to how words are “run in” together. They kind of join up and it makes speaking much easier, instead of painstakingly breathing out every single syllable clearly.
This happens in all sorts of languages, and among all sorts of people. So yes, to answer your first question, these words are used rather commonly in oral English, especially in America.
Your second question: In most cases yes. In formal situations, people try to avoid using them, instead going for their more “correct” form, such as “going to” instead of “gonna”. Example: a television news program, where the newsreader musn’t slur his words.
Source here: On how often people say “gotta”, “wanna” or “gonna” in English speaking countries.
2. If your vocabulary is limited, listen to easy-to-understand audios and videos.
You might say, “But Sheina, my vocabulary is limited! I don’t know a lot of words. How can I even understand what’s being said?”
If this is the case, then listen to videos and audios that are easy to understand. Children’s books for instance. They use simple and common words. What’s more, they’re designed to be easily understood. This is exactly the type of English that you want to listen to if your vocabulary is limited!
This way, you’re able to listen to the sound patterns of the language while also understand the majority of what’s being said. Don’t worry about your limited vocabulary. Expanding your vocabulary is the least of your worries here when listening!
Did you know that if you learn 800 commonly used words in English that you’ll be able to understand 75% of everyday conversations?
If you learn only 800 of the most frequently-used lemmas in English, you’ll be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life.Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277
So you see, you don’t need a wide vocabulary!
NOTE: When you’re listening, the goal is NOT to expand your vocabulary. The goal is to develop the spontaneity and the accent that you want to copy, to get used to the sound patterns and “music” of the language. Once you become decent at these, only then should you try to expand your vocabulary through reading and writing.
Don’t know your level of English fluency? Here’s a video of me explaining the 4 levels of English for call center. Levels 1, 2, and 3 will greatly improve their English through listening.
3. Use subtitles.
If you’re having issues understanding the pronunciation and accent, then turn on the subtitles of whatever it is that you’re watching. This will help you get over the barrier of hearing a new accent for the first time. The more often you listen with subtitles, the time will eventually come when you won’t be needing subtitles anymore.
4. Listen to audio materials that do not bore you.
I don’t care what English materials you listen to as long as it’s something that you truly enjoy. Learning a language shouldn’t bore you to death!
The good thing is, with the rise of YouTube and Netflix, you don’t even have to pay too much to get hold of these learning materials. Follow any native English YouTubers whose contents you love. Watch all the English movies that tickle your fancy. Immerse yourself in the language but do NOT ever forget to have fun in the process.
Your brain will learn better when you aren’t bored to death!
5. Train your ears to be curious.
If you hear a sound that confuses you, take the time to repeat, taste it, roll it around your tongue until you get it right. This is how you acquire a specific accent along with its pronunciation. The good thing is it only takes a few seconds!
6. Repeat, repeat, and repeat.
All the tips that I’m giving here are useless if you’re not going to be consistent with listening. You have no excuse for saying the following:
- “I have no time.” Download the videos in mp3 format and listen to them while you commute or do your household chores.
- “I have no internet at home.” Go to the internet café. Spend an hour downloading all you can and listen to them everywhere offline.
Your ability to benefit from listening will depend on how consistent you are. Without consistency, your efforts are just as good as nothing. Period.
With listening, learning is effortless.
You can easily forget grammar rules but you can never forget feelings. While studying grammar rules has its own benefits, they’re just very tedious to learn. You have to memorize, you have to take note, and you have to deal with almost contradictory rules.
Listening, however, is the exact opposite. You just have to stay put, no need to rack your brain to memorize the rules. The grammar rules will start to make sense as soon as you develop your listening skills to improve your English.
You basically just have to let your subconscious mind do the work. As long as you do it religiously, then you can pretty much expect to see results within months of consistent sessions of listening.
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