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Cashing in on the Colombian accent

Dubbing movies is big business in Bogota. So are call centers. All because it's easy to understand Colombian Spanish.

Two Colombian actors dressed as peasants entertain customers during a performance At the Andres Carne de Res restaurant near Bogota, Nov. 11, 2001. Colombian actors are in demand to lay down soundtracks for Spanish-language films, TV series and commercials. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — At a sprawling office in Bogota, operators equipped with headsets and computer monitors speak in crystal clear Spanish to customers in Mexico, Chile and Spain.

They punch the clock for Unisono, one of more than a dozen international call centers located in Bogota, where a key attraction is the way people talk. By many accounts, the Spanish spoken in the Colombian capital is the most easily understood.

“When you’re selling something you need to be understood and to form friendships over the telephone,” said Ana Isabel Iglesias, an Unisono development consultant. “So you want a neutral accent.”

Bogota’s highly academic form of Spanish — which eschews sing-song intonations and the swallowing of letters common in other countries — is allowing the Colombian capital to cash in at a time of expanding international trade and globalization.

Colombia’s call centers, most of which are located in Bogota, employ more than 70,000 people, a number that is expected to double by 2012, according to Proexport Colombia, which promotes exports and foreign investment.

The fact that a Colombian accent can be understood all over the Spanish-speaking world has helped turn many of the country’s telenovelas, or soap operas, into overseas hits.

The Discovery Channel and The National Geographic Channel often use Colombian narrators for their Spanish-language broadcasts while Fox is filming a number of projects here. Another booming business is the dubbing of movies and TV shows.

“People like our accent,” said Henry Perez, who manages a Bogota studio where actors lay down the soundtracks for Spanish-language films, TV series and commercials. “They like how we say: ‘Ariel: the detergent that will get your clothes the whitest!’”

A Romance language that developed on the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th century, Spanish is now spoken by nearly 500 million people. Also called Castilian, it is the official language of 21 nations, including Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa.

But centuries ago as the Conquistadors imposed Spanish on Latin America and the Caribbean, local populations mixed Indigenous words with Spanish and developed their own dialects, accents and slang.

Seeking uniformity, the Royal Spanish Academy was founded in Madrid in 1713 “to fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance and purity.”