Determining the appropriate code in a South African business environment

  • Marné Pienaar Department of Linguistics and Literary Theory, Rand Afrikaans University, PO Box 524, Auckland Park 2006, South Africa
  • Sarah Slabbert Honorary Research Associate, University of the Witwatersrand, 191 Anderson Street, Northcliff 2195, South Africa


During 1999 a research project was undertaken under the auspices of the Pan South African Language Board, in collaboration with a large financial institution, to investigate the use and attitudes with regard to the nine indigenous African languages in a call centre environment. The financial institution concerned makes extensive use of advisors in the call centre to facilitate electronic telephonic banking transactions. In this environment the choice of code as well as the linguistic structure and content of the discourse are critical factors in the client/advisor interaction.
The research was based on the hypothesis that in the South African call centre environment, the use of the primary language of the client would be perceived to enhance the quality of the interaction between client and service provider. It was further hypothesised that the use of clients' primary languages is a function of advisors' multilingual skills.
This paper will focus on three qualitative aspects of the study:
a) Face to face interviews were held with sixteen call centre advisors to obtain insight into their use and attitudes towards the use of the nine African languages in interaction with clients.
b) Fifty telephonic interviews were held with African clients of the institution to determine:
• clients' experience of the language in which they were served;
• clients' attitudes regarding the role of language in financial services.
c) In depth interviews were held with representatives of senior management of direct financial services.
From these interviews it became clear that clients responded overwhelmingly positively to service in their respective primary languages. The reasons for the positive responses, however, varied.
As researchers, we are of the opinion that these results could impact on language choices that financial institutions make in the future. We have also found that cost objections to the formal introduction of the African languages are largely irrelevant since the staff contingent of call centres already have the necessary language proficiency skills available.

(S/ern Af Linguistics & Applied Language Stud: 2002 20(4): 263-270)

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1727-9461
print ISSN: 1607-3614