Kristoffer Bartolo used to work as an English-speaking call center agent, yet he would receive calls from Spanish-speaking customers. He would sell flowers and gifts over the phone and thought he could use the opportunity to practice his Spanish conversational skills as he had a sufficient command of the language. He would talk to customers and listen carefully to what they would say, and they even understood one another.
Then he was called out by his supervisor and their vendor manager for his calls being handled in Spanish.
“I thought they would fire me because they said our QA analyst heard some of my calls and could not evaluate them. Our vendor manager asked me some questions like, how confident am I in speaking Spanish … Surprisingly, she allowed me to continue taking calls in Spanish, and I was so happy! It really helped me a lot,” Bartolo, who now works as a Spanish Account Associate for an American Fortune 500 company, fondly recalls.
Little did he know that after several years, he would earn “six to eight times higher (could be more) than what I was earning as an English-speaking agent.”
Bartolo is just one among the growing number of Spanish-speaking Filipinos who found success as a “Spanish bilingual agent.”
As the Philippines is not a Spanish-speaking country anymore, he initially had to put in work before achieving this feat.
“My brother and I have always been interested to learn different languages. I was learning Korean and he was learning Portuguese. Then one day, he suddenly stopped practicing Portuguese and started learning Spanish instead. I asked him ‘why?’ He said, ‘I think it’s easier as we have been using a lot of Spanish words in Tagalog,’” he shares.
“I wasn’t convinced right away because I thought I couldn’t do it. He was watching a news program in Spanish language, and all I heard was a fast-speaking foreigner … I couldn’t understand a word he said. Hahaha! I thought it was impossible for me to learn Spanish. Then, my brother improved so fast as he kept on reading, watching films. He even found people online whose native tongue is Spanish, and they became language exchange partners,” he continues.
He finally took his first Spanish lesson at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila in 2013, a pivotal moment in his career, and he had his brother to thank for convincing him. “I was lucky I have someone to practice the language with even outside the class. My brother would talk to me often in Spanish even though I would not understand everything he said,” he says.
One would simply make a hasty generalization that Filipinos don’t speak Spanish anymore, given that Filipino and English are the Philippines’ official languages. But outside of Zamboanga, where the mother tongue is the creole Chavacano, many Filipinos are actually making a living with Spanish in business process outsourcing or BPO companies — just like Bartolo and his brother.
“I was not aware of the bilingual opportunities in the BPO until I met a friend, a Mexican, who was working as a bilingual representative. He shared with me how much he’s earning and what the work is like. During that time, I had this mindset that the only way to be successful in a company is to be promoted and that you’d get a higher salary. This conversation with my friend made me realize that I can achieve my financial goals and work-life balance if I shift career and be a bilingual agent. So I did,” says Danica Bermas, who works as a Spanish resource in the Chief Operating Division of an international bank.
These days, however, it’s not a secret anymore that BPO accounts that require foreign languages have significantly higher payouts than English-based ones.
“Actually, one of the reasons why I pushed through with this personal journey is due to its financial offer. I had no idea at all that one could earn this much,” shares Jehoshua de los Reyes, who works as a Senior Spanish Customer Representative for a well-known BPO company.
Both Bermas and de los Reyes grew up with Spanish-speaking family members, who played an important role in their career success today.
“I grew up with Spanish-speaking grandparents and studying the language made me feel closer to my roots. There are a lot of interesting languages, but I feel more connected with Spanish,” shares Bermas.
“Ever since I learned that my mom used to speak it in her childhood and they used it in their childhood home, it has always gotten my interest knowing that a person can speak more than one language. That’s why, initially, I started learning Spanish just for enjoyment,” says de los Reyes.
Though both have relations who spoke Spanish at home, they needed outside help in mastering the language at a professional level. “My dad first introduced me to the idea of learning Spanish when I was in elementary. I started studying Spanish formally as an elective course in college. Then, I continued my studies in various institutions including Instituto Cervantes [de Manila], Hola Amigos PH and Berlitz,” Bermas shares.
De los Reyes, on the other hand, took advantage of the Internet to jump-start his Spanish learning journey. “I was only in high school when I started learning the language. I always wanted to enroll myself in any school, but as a student, I did not have much money to do it … I just made use of the Internet … and I was able to find a certain site that offered the fundamentals of Spanish grammar. From there I continued and right after college, I applied for a bilingual job that helped me, as well, to save and take formal classes in the said language,” he shares.
BPO is among the fastest growing industries in the Philippines. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who supported initiatives that promote Spanish language during her term, fostered its growth. Million jobs have been created since then, and the BPO industry has become one of the main drivers of the country’s economy.
In 2015, the Philippines was put front and center by becoming “the call-center capital of the world,” stealing the title from India.
The growth of BPO has spurred companies in the Philippines to start offering outsourcing services where foreign languages are needed, and Spanish is just one of them. For a multilingual nation, the BPO industry is a gold mine for Filipinos.
“At first, I had no idea that foreign languages could be used in jobs here in the Philippines. I only knew about it when I joined some Facebook groups that had the objectives of bringing back the Spanish language to the Philippines. After knowing about it, I already knew what job I wanted to land immediately after graduating from college because with the interest I have in the language, I would like to take it and use it in any work field,” de los Reyes says.
Aside from the promising career prospects in multilingual call centers, part of the attraction to join the fray is the accessibility. Some BPO companies in the Philippines do not require job applicants to have a college degree — though having a title is an advantage. In the Spanish sector of the field, it’s not much of a difference.
For Allan Jeffrey Abrenica, who works as a Spanish Customer Support at the Philippine branch of a company that provides training courses, lack of a formal degree was not a hindrance.
“When I was working at my previous company, I had the opportunity to study Spanish. It supported me in my tuition. I didn’t finish college, but I always want to learn something more.
“I enrolled in the basic courses at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila 10 years ago. I achieved level three. And then, since 2018, I continue to study the language in my free time and from other language centers,” he shares.
Abrenica reveals that he earns “twice as much as I did when I was a monolingual agent” and that his “salary is the same with a manager.”
“Higher salary” was also the motivation for Jexter Lakandula, who is a Bilingual Customer Service Representative at a local technology company, to enter the field. Lakandula shares that he learned Spanish in a variety of methods: among them are living in South America, studying at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila, practicing with Spanish-speaking friends and using apps for learning.
Lakandula shares that his salary is not only higher in the BPO industry but also “higher than any other profession for entry level.”
Majority of them share that they found their Spanish bilingual jobs online, mostly on social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. As for Bermas, her connection with other Filipino Spanish bilinguals helped her clinch her job.
“I learned of the job through referrals from my bilingual friends who work in the company. When I was looking for my first bilingual job, I did not know how to find one or where to even start looking. This is where connections come in and the good thing about most Filipino Spanish bilinguals is that we help each other,” she shares.
Since Bermas is employed by a multinational financial institution, she reveals that, what she was getting before as an English call center agent only amounts to the monthly tax being deducted from her salary now.
Being a Spanish bilingual agent, as it seems, is a highly-rewarding career for Spanish-speaking Filipinos who love the culture and the language.
“There are many bilingual opportunities here in the Philippines and just as other skills that we learn and we acquire, languages can also be learned and mastered in time. For that, I advise them to follow their dreams because it is never too late to start learning something new. In my opinion, with this gain, it would no longer be necessary for some Filipinos to leave the country and leave behind their loved ones just for the purpose of gaining a little more than what is usually gained here. Besides, we have some good institutions like Instituto Cervantes [de Manila] where they can learn the language as well as the Hispanic and Latin American culture. At the same time, we have Hola Amigos that is very well known for teaching Spanish in BPO setup for those who wish to enter the said industry,” de los Reyes shares.
“If you’re still studying or plan to study Spanish, I hope that you become kinder to yourself and celebrate little victories. You’re doing something that not everyone dares to start and that in itself is an achievement.
“If you’re still job hunting, I hope that you do not give up yet. Finding a job is challenging and more so during a pandemic. You’ll have your own time, just be patient and have faith,” Bermas says.
Editor’s note: Our conversations were edited for clarity.
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