Language learning

Dunbar and me

Primates are animals that form stable, social groups and the size of these groups is thought to have a direct relation to the size of the neocortex of the species concerned. In the 1990s the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that the size of the human neocortex should enable us to maintain cohesive social groups of around 150 members. This became known as ‘Dunbar’s number’.

To maintain this size, human groups would need a clear incentive to remain together and would need to devote a good proportion of their time to some form of social grooming. However, according to Dunbar [1] a common language obviates the need for regular physical intimacy and allows social groups to remain cohesive through such instruments as gossip, story-telling and so on.

Certain companies have discovered that social problems begin when more than 150 people are working in the same building. W.L. Gore and Associates famously designed all their buildings with a capacity for 150 employees.

What about the language teaching business? Does Dunbar’s number have any validity here? Some of the evidence suggests that it does:

How many Accredited Members does EAQUALS currently have? According to their website the answer is 141.

What about IALC? According to their website, they have 161 members, although that number may include some temporary summer centres.

Also, coincidentally or not, the International House World Organisation has had around 150 affiliate members for as long as anyone can remember. New affiliates join, others leave, but the total remains more or less the same.

At the latest IHWO conference in Catania, Italy, I suggested that we should try to disprove that we are being held back by the size of our neocortex and actively recruit enough new affiliates to push the net total up to 170. Of course if we succeed, we may be risking the social cohesion of the organisation. But perhaps the neocortex of IH affiliates will demonstrate its ability to cope.

If you would like more information on how to become an affiliate of IHWO you can click here:  https://ihworld.com/join-ih/

Or you can write to me at jonathanpdykes@gmail.com 6�


[1] Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language – Harvard University Press, 1996

Diversify or decline

The Institute of North American Studies (IEN) is one of Barcelona’s oldest, largest and most prestigious language schools. The IEN started teaching English to the local population back in 1960 and since then around half a million students have passed through its classrooms. A few months ago the Director of the IEN announced that the Institute would stop teaching English at the end of the current academic year (in June) and concentrate on organising cultural events instead. This news came as something of a bombshell to the 40 or so English language teachers who were working at the school, as well as the 1,100 students still studying there. There were even articles written in the press (see for example a piece in El Periodico https://bit.ly/2DJ0tSl ) which included subheadings such as ‘Crisis in face-to-face language teaching’.

The basic reason given for the closure was that it is no longer economically viable to teach English in the school while maintaining pedagogical and other standards. Improvement in the effectiveness of language teaching in mainstream education, an increase in the number of low-cost competitors, and the rise of online language learning opportunities were all mentioned as reasons explaining the decline in the IEN’s student numbers.

To those of us working in the language teaching business in Spain this has become a familiar story (see previous post ‘Where have all the adult students gone?’ from June 2016). Of course the IEN is not the first private language school in Spain to stop teaching. Hundreds, if not thousands of schools of all shapes and sizes have come and gone over the last 50 years, including some which caused a significant amount of damage when they crashed without any warning (e.g. the Wall Street chain and its competitor clone which, ironically, was called Opening). But the IEN always seemed to be an integral part of Barcelona society. It had always been there and had always been successful. So what happened?

I don’t have any reliable inside information, but it seems fairly obvious to me that, in addition to a sharp decline in student numbers, the IEN may have suffered from an ‘all our eggs in one basket syndrome’. So when the bottom fell out of that particular basket (teaching English to the local population) there was precious little left to fall back on.   

My own approach, adopted some 20 years ago, was to diversify both in terms of product range and geographically. That meant promoting Spanish courses for foreigners alongside a wide range of in-school and off-site English courses; it meant offering an extensive range of teacher training courses; it meant operating as test centres for various exam boards; it meant having our own study abroad department; it meant doing all of the above in various different countries; it meant developing our own online learning solution. Most recently it meant investigating the possibility of offering vocational training courses that may or may not have included a language learning component. Of course the danger inherent in this approach is that you end up with too many ‘baskets’ to handle effectively (aka over-diversification) and this is something I may have been guilty of, although my counter argument would be that there is no reason why a range of ‘baskets’ can’t be distributed among a team of competent managers.

The harsh but obvious truth is that with the possible exception of Facebook, Google and Amazon, no business will last forever. The writing has been on the wall for some time for those private language schools in Spain that still rely heavily on teaching English on their own premises. But there are other options. Some of these may require a significant amount of time or investment to get off the ground, but not all of them do. To quote from a slim volume called ‘Poke the Box’ by Seth Godin: Don’t let the risks inherent in starting something new stop you from trying.

TV interview

My recent interview (in English) on El Punt Avui TV. Talking about how I started out in the language teaching business, some of what’s happened over the past 40 years and what may happen in the future.

Musings on pricing

pexels-photo-259092.jpegHow much should a language course cost? Needless to say the answer will depend on all sorts of variables: how long the course lasts; whether it is face-to-face, online, or a mixture of the two; where it takes place (country, region, town/city, location); whether the teacher is professionally qualified; how many students are in the class; whether the course is a standard ‘general’ language course or something more specialised; whether materials are included in the course fee; and so on.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re talking about a general, ten-week semi-intensive course which consists of 100 hours’ face-to-face tuition, given by a professional language teacher in a private language school located in the centre of a mid-size town in the south of Europe, with a maximum of 10 students in the class. How much might a course of this description cost?

An easy response would be to say: ‘as much as a typical student is prepared to pay’. But what’s a typical student? Someone who is paying for her own course or having it paid for her by her company or parents? Someone who desperately needs to take a course to pass an exam? Or someone who is studying for no obvious reason?

Again for the sake of argument, let’s assume our typical student is a young adult who wants to improve her career prospects and her ability to communicate on her travels, but doesn’t have any urgent need to demonstrate her skills and is paying for her own course. How much could she be asked to pay for the course outlined above?

Is there any way of calculating a ‘Goldilocks price’ that is not too cheap (so the school ends up losing income unnecessarily) or too expensive (so that the student is frightened away)? This ‘just right’ price should help the school generate the sort of margin it needs to provide its services now and in the future, while giving the student the sensation that she’s getting good value for money. So what? More than 500 but less than 1,500 euros? That still leaves quite a wide range of possibilities to choose from.

There are dozens of pricing strategies designed to help companies determine the price of their goods or services (see for example http://bit.ly/2owp5Wz). A couple of the most familiar are cost-plus pricing and value-based pricing.

Cost-plus pricing is relatively straightforward: first work out your direct costs (the cost of the teacher, primarily, but also such items such as photocopies for students, course-specific advertising campaigns, etc.) and divide this by the average number of students per group. Let’s assume these direct costs come to 25 euros per hour and the average number of students per group is 5. Direct costs per student hour are therefore 5 euros. Next calculate your overheads or indirect costs (which means everything that isn’t a direct cost, such as your rent, lighting, administrative staff costs, etc.) and divide this by the total number of student hours you have over a given period (could be a month, a term, or a year). Let’s assume this adds another 3 euros to the cost per student hour, making 8 euros in total. Adding a gross margin of 25% will put 2 euros onto the total cost, giving a selling price of 10 euros per hour, or 1,000 euros for the 100-hour course. Sound reasonable?

The answer to this question will most probably be: that depends how much other schools in the same location are charging for a similar course. If a local competitor has lower salary costs and/or lower overheads and/or is happy to work with a lower margin, they could be offering a very similar service for as little as 600 euros. That’s a whopping 40% less.

So should we base our prices on what our competitors are charging? Well, we should certainly know what the going market rate is. But the danger of basing our pricing on what the guys down the road are doing is that it can easily lead to a price war, or a race to the bottom, leaving margins wafer thin or non-existent, and staff feeling underpaid, unappreciated and unhappy.

An alternative to a cost-plus pricing strategy is value-based pricing. This is based on the idea that the client (student) will pay in relation to the value she obtains from the service (course) she is receiving. In the case of a 100-hour language course, the primary value will most commonly be defined in terms of how much progress she has made developing her language learning skills. That can be measured in broad terms by progress tests and/or continuous assessment, but it will probably also involve ensuring our student feels that she’s made significant progress.

Other factors that contribute value will be less obvious but may be just as important: Is she enjoying the course and enjoying interacting with her teacher and the other students? Is the learning environment clean and comfortable? Does the timetable fit easily into her other commitments? Are the reception staff efficient and welcoming? Is the school easy to get to, and/or easy to park near? Does the school offer extra-curricular services and activities such as social events or access to digital study materials outside classroom times?

The value of all these additional factors can also be measured to an extent, but in many instances it could boil down to individual attitudes or preferences. So objectifying all these values can be tricky, never mind attaching a price to them.

As we all know, perceived value can also be heavily influenced by brand recognition and advertising. Car A may be objectively better (more fuel-efficient, more reliable, more spacious, faster …) than car B, but if car B is branded Mercedes or Range Rover (for example) it is likely to command a premium price.

Building brand value is easier said than done. It requires both delivering services that are perceived to be better than average (in some significant way) and communicating these differentiating values clearly and effectively. What’s more both delivery and communication usually need to happen over a prolonged period of time. But if we’re successful at enhancing the perceived value of our brand, the price of our sample course could be closer to 1,500 than to 500 euros. And no-one will complain.

Why it’s good to be green

Butterfly

Back in 2007, on my way home from the ICEF workshop in Berlin, I was trying to think of new ways that we could make IH Barcelona stand out from the ever-increasing crowd of private language schools offering Intensive Spanish courses in our fair city. Having spent the previous few days in environmentally conscious Berlin, an idea occurred to me: we could perhaps become the world’s first accredited environmentally friendly language school. This could have three real benefits:

  1. It could become a useful marketing tool, helping us attract environmentally conscious students from other parts of the world.
  2. It might help us lower some costs, by cutting back on the amount of paper, water and energy we use.
  3. It would lessen the impact our activities have on the environment and, as the slogan says, every little helps.

Having spent some time researching options, we eventually decided to go for EMAS which is the European Union’s Eco Management and Audit Scheme. To summarise what this involves:

  • We have to publish an Environment Policy which specifies our aims and approach
  • We have to set ourselves targets to reduce the consumption of energy, water, paper and so on.
  • We have to recycle everything that can be recycled
  • We have to ensure that we avoid purchasing products that can be damaging to the environment (e.g. cleaning materials) and replace them with products that are as benign as possible
  • We have to keep detailed records of all of the above and undergo two external audits each year.

We almost certainly were the first language school in Spain (if not the world) to achieve EMAS accreditation and we have now been on the register for 8 years.

So have the benefits we anticipated from adopting this policy materialised? Yes and no.

  1. Our Eco-friendly policy probably hasn’t as much impact as a marketing tool as we originally hoped, although these things are notoriously difficult to gauge. One corporate client once told us that they had chosen us to be their provider as they were also on the EMAS register. But that’s just one case of our environmental policy having tipped the buyer’s decision in our favour. Has this policy influenced other clients in some shape or form? Our surveys suggest it might have, but not to any great extent.
  2. While we’ve clearly lowered the amount of money we spend on utilities and consumables, we’ve had to spend rather more money than we’ve saved. Primarily because we’ve had to employ a part-time (but extremely enthusiastic) Environment Officer to oversee and manage the whole process. Secondly because the cost of the external audits isn’t exactly cheap.
  3. The area where the policy has probably been most successful has been on lessening our impact on the environment. We have reduced the amount of energy we use in relation to student numbers consistently, year on year. The same with water and paper. We still have room for improvement – we still can’t persuade all our staff and students to always switch the lights off when they leave a room; and the amount of paper we use still seems excessive to me. But there is definitely a greater awareness of these issues in the school and while there will always be a number of cynics, peer pressure to consider how our behaviour impacts the environment increases each and every year.

So has it all been worth it? On balance I believe it has. We’re not about to stop global warming on our own, but at the very least we’re able to help raise awareness and we’re seriously trying to set a good example.

As our slogan says “The Earth is our International House”.

For more information on EMAS: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/emas/index_en.htm

To see our environment policy: http://www.ihes.com/bcn/medioamb.html

 

Online language learning providers

online-language-learning

The number of companies offering online language learning is going through something akin to an algal bloom. To borrow another metaphor, this time from the animal kingdom, perhaps it’s time to try to sort the sheep from the goats.

Broadly speaking online providers offer either language learning materials designed for self-study, a tutorial service of some description, or both. Each of these services can be good, bad or undeniably appalling.

So, what makes good self-study content? There are no hard and fast rules, but I think we could agree that there are a number of key criteria:

  1. Online material should have been written by people who know something about second language acquisition. This is a subject that provokes all sorts of disagreements, but most people in the profession would probably agree that languages are not best learnt simply by heavy doses of grammar translation (for example).
  2. Material should also be instructive. It other words, it should be as effective as a good teacher at explaining why the language behaves in a certain way. This probably means it should be interactive on various levels; not simply indicating whether an answer is correct or not, but also explaining why.
  3. Material should also cover as many aspects of the languages as possible. Not just grammar and vocabulary, but all the skills, pronunciation, colloquial language use, etc.
  4. Crucially, online material should be interesting, relevant and motivating. In short it should be fun. If the material is dull, students will quickly switch back to YouTube (it only takes a couple of clicks).
  5. User interfaces should be both attractive and intuitive to use; you shouldn’t need a course in order to be able to do the course.
  6. The materials should be accessible on different devices: PCs, laptops, tablets, phablets and quite possibly mobile phones, although small screen sizes can limit the sort of activity that’s feasible. Students should also be able to use the browser or operating system of their choice.
  7. Stating the obvious, but the programming the makes the material interactive needs to be glitch-free, on all devices and with all browsers.
  8. Students’ work should register on a Learner Management System or e-learning platform so their progress can be tracked and time spent studying recorded.
  9. Students should be invited to give feedback about their study materials and encouraged to make suggestions for improvements.
  10. Last but not least, online material shouldn’t include content that is designed primarily as a marketing tool and has little or no pedagogical value. For example, progress tests that are designed fool students into thinking they’re making more progress than they are; or voice recognition graphics that delude students into thinking their pronunciation is accurate to 72%. Voice recognition software is getting better and will become useful at some point, but we’re not there yet. The same could be said of adaptive learning software.

What about the tutorial service? The key criteria here are these:

  1. Are the tutors proficient speakers of the language themselves? No, this doesn’t necessarily mean “native speakers” but a B1 level simply isn’t enough.
  2. Is the provider employing fully qualified professional language teachers or are they happy to contract students or retirees looking for a little extra income?
  3. Have the tutors been trained to teach online? It is different enough from classroom teaching to warrant some form of training.
  4. Crucially, are the tutors working out of a 24/7 call centre, or are students assigned their own tutor to work with? Knowing their students obviously helps teachers focus their tutorials on their students’ needs and also helps them anticipate any difficulties they may have. Not knowing who you’re going to be talking to makes everything a lot harder for both teacher and student.

Predictably enough there tends to be a direct and clear relation between quality and price (see graph). Professional language tutors cost money, as does well developed self-study material. As a rule of thumb, if it’s cheap (or perhaps even free), it might be useful, but it’s likely to disappoint. If you are able to afford the higher end products (top right-hand corner of the graph) you’re likely to make more progress.

Of course a similar argument could be made for traditional, classroom based teaching.

 

 

Where have all the adult students gone?

The EFL industry in Spain enjoyed a mini boom during the early years of the global economic crisis as many adult students rushed to improve their English language skills, either to get themselves back into the job market, or else in an attempt to hang on the job they had. As we reached the new decade, the boom slowed down and then started to tail-off. But no-one expected the sudden and significant drop in adult student numbers that hit the industry at the start of the current academic year.

The drop wasn’t school, city, or even region specific; it was the same story all over Spain. And the numbers were eye-watering. Depending who you talk to (and/or who you believe) adult student numbers fell by between 10-20%. Enough to make any school owner or manager wince.

What happened? Where did all these students go? Well, as is normally the case, there is no one, simple answer. There has been a slight upturn in in-company teaching, so it may be that some students, who were previously paying for their own courses in our schools, are now studying in their company (if they’re fortunate to have a job in the first place; Spanish unemployment is still well over 20%.)

The standard of English teaching in main-stream education is also getting better, slowly, so it may be that there are more school leavers who have achieved a basic level of communicative competence.

Some adult students – especially the younger ones – may also have decided to switch from a traditional, bricks and mortar language school to a Web-based classroom.

My own theory is that it’s the free movement of labour in the European Union which is having the greatest effect on our market. In other words, as there so few jobs available in Spain, hundreds of thousands of young adults – many of whom may previously have been our students – have simply upped sticks and gone abroad to find work.

A recent survey conducted in the UK indicates that migrants from Spain rose to 137,000 in 2015 (up from 63,000 in 2011). Most of them are probably working in relatively unskilled jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants, but at least they’re working – and they’re improving their English language skills as they go.

A similar number probably emigrated to other countries in the north of Europe and another significant number emigrated to Latin America. Add up all these emigrants and we could be looking at a total of well over 300,000 migrants – just in 2015.

On a recent trip to Oxford I met a young Spanish guy, working in a hotel, who had previously been a student at our school in Barcelona. He’s a typical example. Will he ever move back to Spain, I asked him? Perhaps, in the future, he said, but only if the situation in Spain changes and he can find a decent job. His new fluency in English, learnt by living and working in Oxford, might just help him with that.

So where does that leave Spanish language schools? Will adult students come back to our schools in the same numbers as before? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on this market. If adult students won’t come to us, we can use the Internet to take our services to them. Even those living and working abroad.