Disruption, disruption, disruption. The word is so overused right now that it is almost empty of meaning. Nowhere more so than in the realm of education. But genuine examples exist if you look hard enough, especially when it comes to the language learning market, the second largest vertical in education and one worth USD 54 billion in 2016 according to research firm Ambient Insight.
What do we mean when we talk about the disruption of language learning? On the one hand, mobile devices and apps offer students the opportunity to learn vocabulary and grammar by rote. On the other, we’ve seen the recent launch of software that includes chat bots and video calls to a teacher when a student wants to check pronunciation or meaning.
Both models are cheap, easy to access and simple to market. Good news for the companies who own them. But less so for serious students who need a more immersive environment. Especially one that offers a genuine opportunity to practice spoken languages and get instant feedback on grammar and pronunciation.
Online language learning? It’s time to get serious
The demand for serious language learning is greater than ever. For businesses, a multilingual workforce offers a real competitive advantage. Polyglots are more employable, and willing to relocate, bringing valuable skills with which to pollinate the new workplace.
English, of course, dominates for international business. But new forces are shaping the language learning landscape. Will Brexit lessen demand for English in Europe? Possibly. We can already see a new wave of UK expats relocating, along with their families, to Germany, France and Spain. Most will want to learn the local language to flourish at work, in social situations and to navigate appointments with doctors, dentists and government officials.
Economic migration is another important factor. Europe and the US remain destinations of choice for professionals from all over the world. But these individuals face a different challenge, especially if they want to learn a language before they relocate.
For example, if you live in Madrid, it’s probably quite easy to find a native English language teacher. But if you live in Siberia and your goal is to work for an international business, you’re much less likely to find an expat from Chicago or Cheltenham in the vicinity.
It’s the same in China where millions of people want to improve their English. But only 50,000 native English speakers live in the country and only a small percentage are there to teach languages.
Meeting the learning needs of busy professionals
What are the options for these serious learners? The aforementioned apps with their interactive content are fine for travellers and those of us who enjoy learning languages as a hobby.
Then there are the so-called language learning marketplaces that connect teachers and students. Again, a nice idea, but most lack a structured curriculum and a qualification or certificate at the end of the course.
So where is the Uber of language learning? Here’s where online language schools are starting to fill the gap. They deliver online teaching but replicate a real-world classroom where students get instant feedback on their language skills. Students from anywhere in the world can book classes at a convenient time with native-language speakers. They also benefit from a lesson schedule that helps them earn an internationally recognised certificate.
A wake-up call for the workforce
Few language solutions genuinely offer all these features. But a good example in Europe is Lingoda, a Berlin-based school that offers online face-to-face teaching for students who want to learn English, German, French or Spanish.
Lingoda Co-founder and Managing Director, Fabian Wunderlich, explains: “we take pride in being as similar as possible to the traditional offline schools by for example offering a choice of private or group classes with a strong emphasis on student-teacher interaction. At the same time our classes are so popular because they offer a flexible learning format that can adapt to a busy work or school schedule better than traditional language schools. Students can attend classes 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world. All they need is a computer with a microphone and an internet connection.”
As well as classes with teachers, that can be booked at any time, the school offers a complete curriculum including certificates based on CEFR (The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). This includes language learning materials developed by a dedicated didactics team.
Online schools such as Lingoda require greater commitment, both educational and financial. But professional students, and their employers are making the effort. What’s more, online schools are still a lot less expensive than their real-world classroom equivalents making this model popular with businesses eager to boost the language skills of the workforce.
It’s also a fast-growing marketplace. According to Ambient Insight, in 2017, 10% of the language learning market was online, but that’s expected to grow at 32% per year at least up to 2022.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the number of students learning with online schools is increasing rapidly. In our deeply connected world, learning a language is fundamental to the way we work, make friends and form relationships. It’s hardly surprising that the technology that connects us, is helping us communicate more clearly – in many different voices.