studying English in Spain

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.

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?

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.