Butterflies in a storm

Civil war breaks out in Syria (for all sorts of reasons) causing thousands of casualties, mass migration and unimaginable hardship. A group of fanatics who claim to be inspired by the Koran, but who seem to be motivated primarily by their own blood lust, attempt to fill part of the power vacuum and create “so-called Islamic state”. A number of countries, including the USA, France, Russia and Iran, form an unlikely and largely uncoordinated coalition, which aims to obliterate the fanatics. This provokes fanatics elsewhere to blow up a Russian plane full of tourists and cause mayhem and mass murder in Paris. So far, so horribly familiar.

So what has this got to do with the language teaching business? Well, as a direct consequence of the horrendous events outlined above, a number of students from both France and Russia have written to us saying they are very sorry but they have been advised to postpone or cancel their courses. In some cases, whole groups of students have called off their trips.

This is collateral damage of a very mild kind and in no way compares to the tragic events going on elsewhere. But it does go to show how we are all hostages to fortune. As managers of a small, far-away business, there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent geo-political turmoil, any more than language schools in the north of England and Ireland could prevent a volcano in Iceland disrupting their business a few years ago.

Of course it’s not just language teaching companies that are taking a hit; any business that involves international travel will be feeling the effects, some much more than we are. Just imagine how many empty hotel rooms there must be in Sharm El-Sheik at the moment.

Disruption can of course be triggered by events closer to home as well. Business can be blown off course by local political uncertainties, changes to legislation, technological innovation and a whole host of economic tremors including inflation, deflation, currency fluctuations, interest rate hikes, unemployment, sovereign debt levels… the list is almost endless.

So are we just butterflies in a storm, being blasted whichever way the wind blows hardest?  Is there anything we can do to prepare for outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows and plan our way out of trouble?

Many large organisations engage in ‘what-if’ planning, or PEST analysis, but I’m not sure that many language schools do. Perhaps we should give it some thought.

Here are a couple of links to help get you started:



The Market for Digital English Language Learning

According to a report entitled ‘The 2013-2018 Worldwide Digital English Language Learning Market’ published in August 2014 by research group Ambient Insight, the value of all English language learning products (both digital and non-digital) sold in 2013 was around $35.5 billion. Somewhat surprisingly, only 5% of this total was generated by the sale of digital products.

The report predicts that the sale of digital English language learning products will “surge” to around $3.1 billion by 2018. While that’s a reasonable compound annual growth rate of 11,1%, it still represents less than 10% of the total market value of English language learning products sold in 2013. Isn’t that rather underwhelming?

In August last year I published a post on this blog which listed some of the possible reasons why the transition from classroom-based language teaching to Web-based language teaching hasn’t moved as fast as some of us confidently predicted. One year on and it feels like we might just be about to move out of second gear…

The Ambient Insight report lists five major catalysts driving the growth (such as it is) towards digital English language learning. These are:

1. Large-scale digitization initiative in academic segments. For example, the goal in Brazil is to have all content (including English learning content) in high schools available in digital format by 2017.

2. New Educational policies for English language learning. In other words, governments around the world are implementing policies designed to improve the level of English of their student populations and, at least in some cases, this will stimulate demand for digital content.

3. Consumer demand for mobile language learning. This is described as “Perhaps the most important long-term catalyst for digital English language products.” In this case “products” is taken to mean “apps” and “edugames” although we all know that serious self-paced learning courses can also work perfectly well on tablets (if not so readily on phones).

4. The proliferation of Mobile Learning value added services (VAS). In other words, sign up for a service provided by your local, friendly mobile network operator and get a ‘free’ English course (or app or edugame) as part of the package.

5. The demand for specialised forms of English – otherwise known as ESP courses. In this case, the clients tend to be corporates and that encourages providers to produce suitably high tech solutions – or so the theory goes.

The report clearly states that not every catalyst is present everywhere. It also lists a number of secondary catalysts it has identified including “the steady adoption of digital products in the private English language learning industry.” Perhaps. Although in my experience “steady” in this instance should probably be taken to mean “just about perceptible”.

The complete Ambient Insight report runs to 351 pages and costs rather more than most private language schools could afford to pay. There is however a very useful summary available free on their website: www.ambientinsight.com

To my mind, the report raises a many questions as it answers. For example:

If there are so many catalysts driving growth in digital products, why is the annual compound figure a steady 11% rather than a brisker 15% or 20%?

Are text books still going to dominate our lives in 2018?

Who can I speak to in Brazil to get our digital English products into their high school project?

As always, any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Who’s afraid of the Universal Translator?

Picture this: a Chinese businessman walks into a meeting room where two clients – one German and one Italian – are waiting to greet him. They are all wearing small, high-tech ear pieces which contain both a miniature speaker and a microphone. These devices are connected by Bluetooth to the businessmen’s latest generation smart phones, which nestle comfortably in their jacket pockets. The Chinese businessman greets his clients in Chinese. His smart phone picks up the sound of the greeting, converts the voice into text, and then sends the text message to his clients’ phones. Their phones receive the text greeting, translate it into German or Italian, convert the text message into voice and transmit the now spoken message into their ear pieces. It all happens instantly. The German replies in German and his response is again picked up and translated by the others’ smart phones. Each person at the meeting continues to express himself in his own language and each participant hears every utterance made by the others in his own mother tongue.

This trilingual translated conversation probably wouldn’t sound entirely natural. Only one person would be able to speak at the same time (so the translator wouldn’t be much use at raucous dinner parties) and each participant would probably need to speak rather more slowly and clearly than they would do if they were speaking to someone who shared their mother tongue. Nevertheless the speed of interaction would certainly be faster than it would have been if they had been obliged to use an interpreter; and the intelligibility of the conversation would almost certainly be better than it would have been if they had all tried to communicate in a second (or third or fourth) language.

This combination of voice recognition and instant translation is the sort of thing we are used to seeing in futuristic TV programs such as Star Trek. Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also famously invented a creature called the Babel Fish that lives in the owner’s ear and is capable of translating any language in the universe instantly and faultlessly. While we´re still some way away from being able to travel across the universe at warp speed, (or discovering if the number 42 is indeed the meaning of life, the universe and everything) the prospect of everyone having access to a Universal Translator is distinctly less remote. Both Google and Microsoft are busy developing this technology and it seems only a matter of time before their programs become proficient. In 2014 Google announced that their instant translator was working with around 70% accuracy between English and Portuguese. Microsoft has also demonstrated a program capable of real-time spoken translation which it plans to integrate into Skype.

The key questions for anyone involved in the language teaching business are;

  1. How long will it be before such programs are both accurate and commonplace?
  2. Once such tools are widely available, will anyone still want to learn a second or third language?

The first question is difficult to answer with any degree of certainty. We all know that both voice recognition software and machine translation have a fair way to go before they can be relied upon. But they will get better, especially if giant corporations such as Google and Microsoft throw their almost limitless resources at the challenge. My best guess is that it will take rather less than 10 years …

As for the second question, we should probably separate those people who study a second language because they need to (i.e. for school, for work or to enhance their career prospects) from those people who study another language simply because they want to.

Needless to say there will always be people who want to be able to express themselves in a second or third language. There are also arguments for suggesting that fluency in another language increases brain power and might help stave off the onset of mental diseases such as dementia.

But it seems self-evident that a large proportion of the people who are currently studying a second or third language in our schools are motivated to do so largely by the extrinsic benefits it can bring, rather than by any intrinsic joy or value. A safe assumption, then, is that when a program exists that does away with the need to study another language, given the choice, a large proportion of our clients may well find some other way to spend their time and money.

This would not be good news for the language teaching business. It would be equally damaging for interpreters, publishers, exam boards, and all their myriad suppliers.

A lifeline may be provided by the world’s education ministries, which might decide to leave second or third language studies on the curriculum, irrespective of the rise of universal translators. If they continue to struggle to teach languages effectively (as they currently do in large areas of the world), private language schools should still be able to make a living by picking up the pieces. But what if future curriculum planners decide to abandon second or third languages in favour of more maths, or something relatively new like computer programming?

Before we collectively fall into despair, let’s just remember that many people in our industry (myself included) predicted that paper-based text books would have vanished by now; yet they still sell in their tens of thousands, even in fully-wired, developed countries. Could fear of the effects of the Universal Translator be equally misplaced?

The good news is that, no matter what the mid to long-term future brings, we probably still have a viable business for several years to come. At the very least, that should give us enough time to develop an exit strategy.

There’s lots of rules …

The 2015 edition of IH Barcelona’s ELT Conference featured a world-class line up of speakers. Coincidentally, three of the plenary speakers, Michael Swan, Scott Thornbury and Martin Parrott, all talked about a similar issue: how the English language is changing and what impact these changes might have on the language that we teach in our classrooms. The consensus of opinion of all three speakers was that while English has always been subject to change, the pace of change is increasing fast and the TEFL industry is lagging behind.

One example: we have all been told that we should use ‘less’ when we speak of uncountable nouns and ‘fewer’ for countable objects. But according to Martin Parrot, this distinction was unheard of until the 18th century. Previously ‘less’ was used for all nouns. A few centuries later and ‘less’ is evidently reclaiming its right to be used on every occasion, although students who write ‘less cars’ in an end of course exam are still likely to be marked down.

Would a student be marked down for saying “I so don’t agree with you” or “I was sat there for hours” in an oral exam? Probably not. What about a written exam? Probably yes.

Martin Parrott, who’s talk was entitled ‘The Tyranny of TEFL speak’ made the point that most English language course book writers seems oblivious to most of these changes and consistently produce a version of English that essentially reflects the way university educated, middle class people living in the Home Counties spoke in the 1970s and 80s.

So how should this natural evolution of language impact our classroom teaching? Should we accept any utterances that are commonly used, however much they might grate on our ingrained sense of correctness? Should we teach students how people actually speak in this day and age, but warn them that certain commonly used words and expressions shouldn’t be used in exams? That might be one solution, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

As Scott made abundantly clear, all languages change over time and globalisation has hastened the changes.  That said, not all languages are quite as amorphous as English seems to be. In some cases this is because the natural process of change is corralled by institutions which seek to keep some semblance of control. Spanish is overseen by a collection of highly prestigious academics and authors who collectively make up the Real Academia Española. These eminent minds meet periodically to discuss which changes to Spanish are acceptable and which are not.  Whatever they say goes. Students taking the Instituto Cervantes’ Spanish language exams don’t therefore have to navigate the fast expanding grey areas that students of English are increasingly faced with. If the Real Academia says something is admissible, that’s fine. Otherwise it just ain’t.

Cultural historians may like to consider why Spain has an official body of language overseers whose role is to determine what is and isn’t allowed in Spanish, whereas the free market seems to hold much greater sway in England, at least outside the “tyranny” of most EFL course books and exams. But that’s a debate which goes way beyond the scope of this blogpost, innit?

Official (public sector) language schools

In Spain (my adopted home) the regional governments operate a network of Official Language Schools (EOIs) which offer heavily subsidised language courses to the local adult population. (In Catalonia, where I live, the minimum age required to attend such a course is 16, although students aged 14 or older can also sign up to study a language they’re not taking at school.)

Course fees are significantly lower than they would be in the private sector. For example a145-hour course at an EOI in Barcelona currently costs around 300 €. A comparable course in the private sector would cost well over 1,000 €.

Class sizes in EOIs are generally quite large – often over 20 students per group – at least for the most popular languages such as English, French or German. This compares to a standard maximum group size of around 10-12 in the private sector.

Despite the larger group size, EOI courses are heavily subsidised by the tax payer. As an EOI website professes (in slightly clunky English): the courses have a much higher actual cost than what students pay …

If you want to study a less popular language (Portuguese, Korean, …) you’re pretty much guaranteed a place on a course; the problem you may face is that there are not enough people who want to study your chosen language at your level.

However, if you are a new student and want to study one of the ‘demand high’ languages, you put your name down and then there’s a random drawer to select applicants to fill the places available. If your name is picked out, you get a place on a course; if you’re not picked, you’re not admitted, although you may be able to put your name on a waiting list, in case there are any dropouts.

You might expect me, as CEO of a group of private (unsubsidised) language schools, to object vigorously to this use of tax payers’ money. Not quite.

I’m all in favour of the public sector offering courses in languages that the private sector can’t readily provide (Portuguese, Korean, …). I’m also in favour of the public sector offering subsidised courses in ‘demand high’ languages such as English, French and German to those people who simply couldn’t afford to study at a private school e.g. the long-term unemployed, or people belonging to a family with an income of less than X thousand Euros a year.

But is seems a little odd that everyone is eligible to take one of these subsidised courses.

The system is fair in that it admits all comers. It’s unfair in that it often selects those people who could afford to pay for a course at a private language school and consequently leaves out those people who can’t.

What do you think?  Should the state provide subsidised language courses to anyone who wants one, irrespective of their economic circumstances? Is there a similar network of public sector language schools in your country? If so, how do these operate?

All comments welcome.

Learning the ropes

Parent to child: What would you like to be when you grow up, dear?

Child: Director of a private language school!

Parent: Really? That’s an odd choice. Why do you want to do that?

Child: Well, I like languages. I like travelling. And I’d like to make some money.

Parent: Well, if you’re sure that’s what you want…

Child: What do you think I should study?

Parent:  Umm, let me think. Language teaching? Business management?

Child: Both at the same time?

Parent: Probably not. Best do the language teaching bit first and then, if you’re still keen, do the business management afterwards.

Child: That sounds complicated. Maybe I’ll be a vet instead.

Parent: Yes, that sounds much more sensible.


How do you learn how to run a private language school?

Well, some managers come ‘ready-made’ in the sense that they’ve studied an MBA and/or worked as managers or consultants in a different industry. Some of them are quite successful. But most of the managers I know in the language teaching business have made their way along the following long and winding path:

It starts with a language teacher training course (I’d recommend the CELTA for English language teachers, but there are alternatives). Then you go off and get some experience teaching your own language, probably somewhere abroad. After a couple of years, if you’re still having fun, you might take a more advanced qualification (still completely focused on teaching).  If you survive that, you could then move into a position of some responsibility, perhaps as a level head, or Assistant Director of Studies. A year or two later you’ll probably have to choose between taking the academic branch on the language teaching career ladder (and become a teacher trainer, Director of Studies or possibly even a materials writer) or take a leap into the much less familiar, much harder-nosed world of business management. (OK, it’s not exactly Gordon Gekko territory, but if not dog-eat dog, it can be parrot-pull-the-tail-feathers-out-of-parrot…)

If you choose to take the leap into business and you work for one of the larger language teaching organisations, you’ll probably find that they offer their own internal management training courses, which may or may not be useful.

If you’re tempted to make the leap but your employer can’t help, there are a couple of useful training courses out there which are open to everyone:

IH London offers an online course in Educational Management http://www.ihlondon.com/courses/diploma-in-academic-management/

IH Barcelona (my own outfit) runs a blended learning course leading to the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management http://www.ihes.com/bcn/tt/idltm.html

Excellent courses, but they are moderately expensive. If you can’t afford the fees (or your organisation isn’t prepared to help finance you) there is always the Web with its swarms of helpful user groups, networks and bloggers who are more than willing and quite often able to guide you.

But let’s face it, whatever pre-service training you do, nothing could fully prepare you for the daily smorgasbord of issues you’ll have to deal with as director of a private language school. Depending on the size of the school, you may end up being strategic planner, financial director and/or bookkeeper, marketing director, community manager, webmaster, human resources director, social programme organiser, exam administrator, janitor, cleaner, and standby teacher, all at the same time.

If that sounds daunting, it often is. But it can also be stimulating and fun. And there are plenty of opportunities out there for budding managers who are prepared to take the leap and put in the hours.

Alternatively, you could always become a vet.

Composite and transient advantages

One of the best known mantras of business management theory is that in order to succeed, a company must have a competitive advantage over its rivals. In other words, it must have or do something that will persuade its potential clients to buy its good or services, rather than those of its competitors.

Michael Porter (aka Professor Strategy) argued that there are essentially two types of competitive advantage available: lower-cost or differentiation. He also argued that strategic management should be chiefly concerned with building and sustaining a company’s competitive advantage.

When I first came across this sort of thinking, back in the late 1980’s it seemed pretty obvious that we had this issue sewn up. Our companies – our International House language schools, teaching English in Spain – had a very clear competitive advantage which helped us differentiate ourselves from the vast majority of our competitors: we only employed native English speakers who had been specifically trained to teach English as a foreign language. Most of our competitors employed a mixture of non-native speakers and backpackers. They didn’t have a chance. The non-native speakers may have been perfectly competent teachers, but the market wanted native English speakers. As for the backpackers, they were often native English speakers, but put them in a classroom and they didn’t know what they were doing.  Our competitors were often cheaper than us, but we had that essential ingredient –professional, native English teachers – and students literally queued out the door to pay for our services.

It was great while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. Thousands of professionally trained, native English teachers soon found their way out to Spain, or were trained in Spain (most often by International House) and before very long, almost all the self-respecting language schools in our part of the world were offering the same essential ingredient. We could still try to claim that we were different and better e.g. by only employing the very best candidates from our teacher training courses, and by making teacher training a continuous process – but the differentiation gap had narrowed significantly. We were no longer miles ahead, or miles more attractive.

I spent the next decade or so secretly worrying that we were living on our past success and that we no longer had a clear tick in the box marked: sustainable competitive advantage.

Then I came up with an idea that made me feel a whole lot better: while it may be true that we no longer had a single, clear, competitive advantage, we did have a number of smaller advantages that when added together, amounted to something significant. For example: we not only had trained, native teachers and continuous, in-service training; we also had a sound academic structure, led by a well-qualified Director of Studies; we used the best study materials available on the market; we had eye catching promotional materials; we had good, comfortable premises, in good locations, with easy access; we trained our front of house staff to deal with customers correctly; and so on. I even coined a name for this amalgam of small, competitive advantages: I called it our ‘composite advantage’.

If I’d been teaching at a top Business School rather than running a small group of companies, this term – composite advantage – may have become part of the established jargon. Or so I tell myself. In any case, it was enough to help me sleep at night and not worry too much about Professor Strategy.

Earlier this year I was introduced to another idea that also makes perfect sense (thanks Monica). The thinking here is that in this day and age, it’s almost impossible for most companies to develop a sustainable competitive advantage. The business world simply moves too fast. As soon as one company comes up with a significant advantage, many of its competitors simply go out and copy it and bang goes the advantage. (This is of course exactly what happened with our trained, native teacher advantage, albeit at a slower pace). So, rather than trying to create a competitive advantage that can be sustained over time, companies are now being advised to come up with something described as a transient advantage, something that will keep them ahead for a while, but will need to be replaced by another transient advantage before too long, as soon as the competition catches up.

A couple of examples of transient advantages from our own experience:

When we first started to offer intensive pre-service training courses for Spanish language teachers that included both theoretical and practical sessions (based on the model of our training courses for English teachers) we had a tremendous competitive advantage: we were the only organisation in Spain offering such courses. Nowadays there are dozens of similar courses available and we have had to find new ways to maintain our advantage e.g. by developing a blended version of the course and by obtaining university credits for trainees who successfully complete our courses. We don’t know how long these new transient advantages will last, but we do know they won’t last forever.

Similarly, around four years ago, a number of our schools decided to equip all their classrooms with data projectors and interactive whiteboards. This new hardware transformed our classrooms from something that would have been familiar to students from the Edwardian age, to something that was at the cutting edge of classroom technology. Most of our students were suitably impressed. However, nowadays almost every private language school has classrooms bristling with technology, so the competitive advantage we briefly enjoyed has evaporated. It lasted about two years.

According to Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business schools and author of a book called The End of Competitive Advantage (Havard Business Review Press, June 2013) these days companies need to develop and manage a ‘pipeline of initiatives’ since many will be short-lived.

To stay ahead in our business I think we need a wide pipeline, producing a broad range of initiatives. So perhaps we should be talking about transient, composite advantages.