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EL Asia Pacific: China – reinventing the wheel?

Rex Pe China P.g vii

Melanie Butler isn’t convinced that one-to-one smart-phone learning is enough to meet the People’s Republic urgent need for EL teachers.

Is the market for English as a foreign language in China different from that in other countries – or is it just bigger? It is certainly big. According to a 2015 report there are 50,000 language schools in the country. India is big too. I don’t think anybody has the numbers for Indian language schools, but as English is the second language of the country, India has enough local teachers to meet its needs.

China doesn’t. It needs to import around 500,000 teachers to cover the private language school sector. Following the new Chinese regulations on foreign teachers (reported in last month’s Gazette), it only wants native-speaker graduates with a Tefl certificate or two years’ teaching experience.

Good luck with that one. To reach the figure of 500,000 the Chinese will need to recruit one in every two hundred graduates aged between 20 and 32 from every English-speaking country in the world, based on OECD statistics. What’s more, given the typical teacher turnover for EFL, they will need to do that every two years.

So what can they do instead? Well the first thing they tried was self-paced e-learning, in other words high-tech self-study, but after a period of rapid growth the market has fallen sharply, not only in China but around the world. The 2015 Ambient report puts this down to commoditisation and increasing competition, but it may be just that, as other EFL markets have found, it doesn’t work for most learners. The empirical evidence is that dropout rates are very high: only 7 per cent of adult foreign language learners completed a 150-hour self-study course, a research study by Maryland University found. Of course the learners were Americans, not Chinese, but the US is the second-biggest market in the world – according to Ambient.

The new big thing, according to reports, is self-paced one-to-one tuition, increasingly delivered by mobile phone. There are 62 million subscribers to such services. If they are all one-to-one studying for one hour a week, they will need two million tutors teaching 30 hours a week, even if students are allocated specific times slots. This is doable if the teachers used include those from large second-language countries like the Philippines – though unless they are well-enough paid and paid for waiting time between teaching calls, teacher churn will remain an enormous problem.

If, as most of the providers seem to promise, students can log on and find a tutor on demand, the figure for teachers needed will rise dramatically since the majority of students will do this in the peak hours after school and after work. Dropout rates will also increase. In the adult market at least, signing up for language lessons is a little like signing up for a gym – you start off by going but your attendance drops off over time.

This is fine, if like most gyms you get the student to pay up front. However, if the students can pay as they go, as some providers are promising, then a lot of companies are likely to go bust.

How do we know this? Because the exact same model has existed for many years. It’s called telephone teaching, and the economics of doing it don’t change just because your landline has turned into a mobile. And as for not understanding the ‘gig economy’, the telephone schools tried not paying teachers when students didn’t phone in. The teachers just left.

Whether you’re Chinese or Czech, the economics of language teaching doesn’t change.

Pic courtesy: Rex Pex