A rising need for global communication is driving demand for a wide variety of language courses, writes Andrea Li
MASTERING A foreign language is often characterised by rote learning, which is made worse by outdated textbooks that use complex grammar.
But imagine if acquiring a whole new vocabulary was just as much fun as watching a sitcom on television.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds, at least if you are talking about learning English. Because of new developments in the world of technology and linguistics, learning a new language can be entertaining.
One of the city's largest providers of English classes, the Wall Street Institute School of English, is leading the drive to make language learning fun, exciting and productive. The institute follows an integrated approach to teaching English, using listening, speaking, reading and writing.
'The course structure is based on the lives of a group of people as they encounter different situations in life,' said Faye Man, Wall Street Institute's senior centre director, adding that the dialogue became more difficult as one moved to higher levels but the content was consistent throughout and the experience was just like watching a television series.
Besides the core classes and laboratory sessions, there are also extra-curricular services such as social club activities and complementary classes that nurture an English-speaking environment at the school's six centres.
Meanwhile, the increasing need to use Putonghua and unwavering demand for English - the international business language of choice - has prompted a surge in student enrolment. Language schools are pulling out all stops to attract students through advertisements in magazines and newspapers, direct mail promotions and free trial sessions.
But Wall Street's experience has shown that the most valuable tool for attracting students is the power of referrals.
'A lot of our business comes through word of mouth,' Ms Man said.
'It is a bit like running a restaurant. If our students have enjoyed the course and think it is value for money, they will naturally tell their friends about it.'
This may sound simple, but a lot of groundwork and years of nurturing a school's reputation are needed before students begin to spread the word. In the Wall Street Institute's case, Ms Man attributes the stellar reputation to the high-calibre staff, course quality and the fact that students actually learn from the programme.
'Some people can learn English for 10 years and not learn anything, but our students learn a lot in just one year,' she said.
Such results do not come about easily. Developed by a team of linguists, the course is designed to teach English as a second language anywhere in the world, with effective study materials that support the students. Organising such a course calls for significant manpower and considerable investment. Smaller companies find it difficult to duplicate these efforts.
One thing is for sure: the outlook for the language school market is very positive.
Even Kaplan, one of the world's largest training companies specialising in test preparations, has jumped on the bandwagon by acquiring the Hong Kong Putonghua Vocational School in February.
'People are no longer learning Putonghua for general conversation but for industry-specific needs [in areas] such as retail, tourism and banking,' said Mark Coggins, chief executive of Kaplan International Asia.
'This is a very competitive business given the nature of the industry. It is very easy for individuals to set up their own schools. But emulating Kaplan would be difficult given its strong reputation, multiple locations and investment in internet and general support, among other things.'
But not all language learning is driven by practical needs. There are a few people who learn languages just for fun. During the past few years, learning French has become a trendy pastime, particularly among the younger generation. Class enrolment numbers have soared 25 per cent since 2000.
'Most people now learn for the love of the language and to be able to converse when they are on holiday,' said Gerard Henry, deputy executive manager of Alliance Francaise.
As the market for learning languages expands, establishments such as the Wall Street Institute and Alliance Francaise are recruiting teachers from Hong Kong and other countries. Besides the required professional qualifications, teachers need to be outgoing and have a genuine desire to teach and help students.
'Teaching shouldn't just be a job,' Ms Man said. 'You need to be someone who can derive satisfaction from the work, be cheerful and eager to find new things to teach while looking at ways for self-improvement.'
Ms Man said that the biggest challenge in the industry was to ensure that there was high student enrolment every season.
With the economy regaining its momentum, students will have more flexibility to choose the kind of academic courses they want to pursue - be it in languages, information technology or business management.
A disjunct expresses the speaker's or writer's attitude to what is being described in the sentence
A word that is written and pronounced the same way as another, but has a different meaning
The study of forms of language, especially the different forms used in conjugations and word building
A branch of linguistics dealing with the analysis, description and classification of speech sounds