World class: English is a global business

Teaching our native tongue contributes £1.3bn to the UK economy. Yet we are losing out to our foreign rivals, discovers Ian Wylie.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the French government reluctantly decreed that English lessons be made compul- sory in schools, Paris daily Le Monde ran a cartoon of two children talking in the playground. 'If they force us to learn English, we'll speak only French,' one says in French. 'Yeah,' replies his friend.

When even the French admit defeat, the triumph of English as the world's lingua franca is assured. Now spoken by close to 1.5 billion people, our language is our most successful export. Whether you're a Swedish executive on business in Shanghai or a Brazilian geneticist at a conference in Mexico, you're probably speaking English.

English language training is one of the motors of globalisation and a multi-billion-dollar industry. But who is profiting from this English explosion? The British? The Americans? Not any more, says a report published this month: native-speaking nations - Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - have squandered their competitive edge.

According to the UN, more people now speak English as a second language than speak it as a first. And they're the ones teaching it, too. Research for the European Commission shows that the proportion of adults in the EU who speak English has risen to nearly half, while the number of people speaking German or French has fallen. Even in Brussels, 60% of Commission memos are in English, 25% in French and just 5% in German. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, English has also become the language of choice for military operations, as former Warsaw Pact countries join Nato troops on manoeuvres.

English is the official language of the European Central Bank and the working language of Asian trade bloc ASEAN. In India, where a good command of English can mean a ticket to a prized call-centre job, there are more English speakers than the total populations of the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Half the world will be speaking or learning English by 2015, says the British Council, the Foreign Office body that promotes British culture abroad. There are more Chinese children studying English than there are people in the British Isles. You cannot graduate from a Chinese university without passing a basic English exam, and even Beijing's taxi drivers have been ordered to learn English before the 2008 Olympics or risk losing their licences.

In central Asia, the president of Turkmenistan recently ordered his entire cabinet to learn English, so that they can conduct trade talks and international negotiations on an equal footing. The capricious Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi (whose previous diktats include bans on recorded music and men with long hair) has given his ministers six months to dispense with their interpreters or face the chop.

Why English? The reasons for the rise of our language to global domination are many: from colonial expansion and economic globalisation to satellite TV and the internet. There have been heroes and villains along the way: John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, who penned and printed the first English translations of the Bible; the Plymouth Pilgrims, who carried English with them to America; slave traders, spice merchants and explorers who introduced the language to Africa, India and Australia; and the US marketeers who through their Coca-Cola colonialism came to dominate much of the 20th-century world with their brand of American English.

Teaching English as a foreign language - TEFL - is one of the oldest commercialised education sectors. Private language schools were pioneered by teachers such as Maximilian Berlitz, who established a school in Rhode Island in 1878, before setting up 16 more in Europe. Former Berlitz teacher Alfred Larke opened one of the earliest UK schools, the London School of English, in 1912 in premises opposite Berlitz in Oxford Street, London. Oxford Street remains a language school battlefield. Ads, flyers and billboards promise instant access to the language of success.

There are 1,400 language schools in the UK, most attracting overseas students to their English courses via an established network of 'language travel agents'. At a cost of between £350 and £1,500 a week per student, English language teaching contributes £1.3 billion a year to the UK economy, according to the British Council, which accredits course providers. Language Travel Magazine estimates that the total TEFL market in native English-speaking countries is worth about £4.5 billion.

The British Council, set up 70 years ago to combat Nazi propaganda, is an important English teacher itself. Through state-sector teachers and local authorities, it teaches English to 300,000 learners in 56 countries, and much of its £485 million a year income derives from language services.

But compared with the insatiable appetite globally for English teaching, the UK market is a cottage industry. It's reckoned that only 50 of these 1,400 language schools have sales exceeding £1 million. Many are still owned and run by the teachers who established them. With a number of smaller schools approaching their 40th or 50th anniversaries, some are being passed on to heirs or sold to British-owned language chains, such as OISE (see profile, p58) and the Daily Mail's Brighton-based Study Group. But the largest language-school chains operate from countries where the first language is not English: chains such as Euro-centres, owned by Swiss retail giant Migros, Japanese-owned Geos and Sweden's EF.

As David Graddol argues in a report for the British Council to be published on February 14, the world's love of English is pushing us to a tipping point beyond which the economic advantage of native speakers will vanish forever.

Graddol, an Open University academic and an authority on English language trends, says economics are now working against us. 'The costs of studying English in native-speaking countries are very high and yet the majority of the learners live in low-cost nations. To be sustainable, it ought to be the other way round.'

The biggest boom of recent years has been in Chinese students, yet the number travelling to the UK and the US to learn English has collapsed, due in part to tough immigration measures and a weak dollar.

While being a native English speaker was once the gold standard, Graddol says native speakers will find themselves marginalised and less influential as speaking English becomes a generic learning skill, more akin to learning a computer language. Increasingly, learners are less interested in the culture of the English-speaking nations than how the language can give their career plans a boost.

Graddol recalls visiting a Chinese university that chose a Belgian company to develop English lessons for it. When he asked why, they explained they saw it as an advantage that the Belgians, like the Chinese, are not native speakers and so would have a feel both for the intricacies of learning the language in adulthood and for using it to communicate with other non-native speakers.

As a result, traditional English language learning destinations are facing strong competition from countries where English is the official second language. 'Chinese students are choosing closer regional options such as Singapore and India, or even European options such as Holland and Switzerland, where lectures are taught in English,' explains Graddol.

Even the core of the English language school market - teenage students from continental Europe - is under threat. 'The old-fashioned language school method was to teach English to groups of teenagers coming over from Europe,' explains Graddol. 'But that market is declining fast because many countries are now teaching English as early as six years old. It is affecting the language schools profoundly.'

Attempts by some of the language chains to establish schools in Asian markets such as China have met with little success. 'Some of the big-name chains are struggling to make money in China,' says Graddol. 'The people making most of the money are local providers operating at lower costs. The quality of teaching may not be as high, but most students just want to get through an exam.'

Other British educational institutions seem to be faring better. Harrow and Shrewsbury colleges have offshoots in Bangkok. Nottingham University has a campus in Malaysia, and last year opened the first foreign university campus in China, at Ningbo. Cambridge University, meanwhile, is overseeing Beijing's English-language teaching programmes in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The changing commercial landscape has some TEFL players exploring different business models, positioning themselves to offer support services for English language teaching. The Study Group, for example, has signed a deal with the University of Sussex to prepare overseas students for degree courses. Macmillan, one of the biggest publishers of English language textbooks, has invested £4 million in its English campus, an online teaching resource for language teachers. Other firms, such as Infospeed (see profile, left), are pioneering software for student administration.

But native speakers shouldn't assume they need learn only their own language. Research by CILT, the national centre for languages, shows that where English is the language of our customers - the US, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and India - the value of our exports exceeds the amount we import. However, major trading partners whose first language is not English (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Italy) all manage to sell us more than we sell them.

At present, only one in three Britons can speak a second language, yet language lessons are no longer compulsory after the age of 14. English may be our greatest export, but if we remain language dunces we'll be the greatest victims of our own success.


TILL GINS, chief executive, OISE

Like many British language schools, Oxford Intensive School of English (OISE) is still owned and run by the man who established it more than 30 years ago. On the way, Till Gins developed the management skills to build his company into the largest chain of language schools in the UK.

OISE owns and runs 22 permanent and 22 summer schools in cities around the world, including London, Bristol, Cambridge, Boston, San Francisco, Sydney, Madrid, Heidelberg and Paris. After acquiring rivals that include Basil Paterson College, Harven School of English, Newbury Hall, Pilgrims and, most recently, Regent, OISE teaches more than 13,000 students and has an annual turnover of more than £30m.

'It would be wrong to think Britain has always had a monopoly in the English teaching industry,' says Gins. 'Thirty years ago the Swedes were pioneering what they called international English, so the British have never had a strong hold on this industry.'

According to Gins, only a dozen or so of his competitors have a turnover of more than £5m. 'Many schools were begun by English teachers for whom it was a lifestyle business. Few had the skills to build it into a real business. Now they're realising that the business environment is very different to what it was when they started.

'Our recipe for success has been to grow gradually, and I've tried to develop managers and management rigour as we've gone along. It's difficult in any people-based service industry to get economies of scale, but we keep a tight lid on our costs and run everything from a small corporate base.'

Gins plans to list OISE on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) later this year. He'll continue to concentrate on attracting students who want to travel to the countries where the language is spoken. 'Most of our students are from continental Europe, and for us that market is still very healthy - the economies of Europe are strong as far as we're concerned.

'But it's true that people don't come to Britain to learn "British English" any more. They're more practical than that: they want to function in a world that happens to communicate in English.'


GRAHAM HACKER, chief executive, Infospeed Software

Graham Hacker knows that language students, like any other kind of students, can be a pretty disorganised bunch. Which is why his firm writes software that keeps tabs on language students by SMS.

'When students get off a plane, what's the first thing they do?' asks Hacker. 'They switch on their phones. So we thought it would be nice for the phone to bleep with a text that says: "Welcome to ABC language school".

'But it also means that if they lose all their documentation and their notes - as many of them do - they have a telephone number as an emergency contact should they find themselves up a gum tree,' he adds.

The SMS function, which also sends out friendly text messages asking truant students to get in touch with the school office, is just a small part of Infospeed's Class program - an industry-specific piece of 'visual basic' software that has already captured more than a third of the UK language school market.

'We're just a small company of 14 people, but because four of us are from the language school business, we decided to write a booking and administration system for the language industry because it's quirky,' says Hacker, who was previously financial controller for the Aspect language school chain. 'It's a complex business with bits of travel, bits of language training and bits of accommodation.'

Having signed up large global chains and franchises, including Eurocentres, Aspect, International House and Language Studies International, Infospeed software has been installed in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Europe and the Middle East. This year, the company plans to offer an internet-based version of the software to the agents who recruit students on behalf of language schools.

'What we're now finding is that English is the key language in all international schools, regardless of what they teach,' says Hacker.

'Even a Spanish school teaching Spanish internationally will now use English to communicate, because the rest of the world wants to communicate in English.'

Nearly 1.5bn people worldwide speak English More Chinese children learn English than there are people in Britain Nearly half the adult population of Europe speak English Half the world will speak English by 2015 English is now more widely spoken as a second language than as a first It is impossible to graduate from a Chinese university without passing a basic English exam The English-speaking population of India is larger than the combined population of Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

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