Chris Brandwood takes a closer look at the implications of a major report into the future of English learning in Europe
The British Council recently commissioned its Europe: 2025 report aware that more had changed in the ELT market in the last few years than in perhaps a couple of decades before that.
Brexit was the trigger for us to have a closer look, but was by no means the only reason.
There are certain points in time that put changes in ELT demand and provision into perspective. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall saw a huge rise in demand for private- and public-sector provision of ELT across central and Eastern Europe.
Some changes have no such milestone. In countries such as Spain for example, gradual changes in educational systems are seeing the quantity and quality of language provision rising.
Across Europe, the report shows, demand for English in education and at work is intensifying, despite a largely declining demographic.
It will only become apparent with time whether we look back at Brexit as a milestone for English demand generally, or specifically for demand to come to learn English in the UK.
The most striking changes today, however, concern the nature of the demand.
There is a ‘need’ factor (via internationalisation of work and education) that has clearly increased, and an ‘exposure to language’ factor (via the internet) that has intensified beyond measure.
Consequently, the ‘motivation’ factor for young people has increased, spurred on by the attractiveness, speed and accessibility of the technology, which can satisfy needs for knowledge, certification, social interaction – and, most importantly, fun.
“There are certain points in time which put changes in ELT demand and provision into perspective ”
The report highlights that demand for ELT will follow today’s consumer trends. Learners want personalised solutions to suit individual needs and lifestyles, and flexibility in terms of time, place and intensity of study.
Value for money is key; if courses are not effective, people soon lose interest.
There is increased interest from learners and employers in purposed and tailored study to meet specific subject and sector needs.
These trends have an impact on traditional institution-based teaching and, critically, on technology in language learning.
Perhaps with technology more than any other area, the report seems to indicate that we are at the beginning of a journey – without a clear winning formula yet, but nonetheless with hugely exciting developments happening right now.
We see technology evolving as we speak. We are witnessing the developing use of AI as a tool in language assessment, and teaching programmes are already learning and improving themselves to identify learners’ difficulties in real time.
Duolingo, Babbel, Busuu and MOOC providers have combined audiences in the tens of millions. Their offers provide the immediacy, flexibility and attractiveness required to match the needs so coveted by this generation.
There is still much to understand in how learners use these materials. We know the percentage of people completing Apps and MOOCs are relatively low. The providers understand this only too well and are working on their products to encourage the staying power of the users.
Some of their own experts acknowledge the challenge to satisfy demand for learners at the higher language levels. Here, future opportunities may see more sophisticated screen-to-screen tuition elements.
Perhaps ultimately AI will be capable enough to carry out natural interactions with learners, even at the highest levels.
Crucially, as one of the respondents to our survey accurately pointed out, it is not just about technology but also about finding the right pedagogy for these new tools.
Additionally, for good or for bad, we now live in the world of Big Data. Digital companies can record, understand and adapt to every learner interaction, and have a quantity of data on learning and achievement previously unimagined.
They are already (obviously) using the data to develop their own offer, and in some cases have published their findings.
This data is an incredible resource. Let’s hope technology companies and linguists will come together to carry out and publish more research and try better to understand how people learn languages effectively.
This could be a revolution in our understanding of the learning process, and a milestone in meeting the demand for English.
Chris Brandwood is director of English for the British Council’s EU region and has held teaching and management positions for the BC across the continent.