The language training industry is blossoming into another China economic success. In Beijing alone profits hit US$85 million last year while more than 200,000 students took English classes hoping to give themselves, their companies and industries an edge in an increasingly more international and competitive marketplace.
The oral English course at the Beijing New Oriental Language School, for example, reported income of US$10.89 million. In Shanghai, The Wall Street Institute (WSI) invested almost US$5 million in new branches and extra resources.
The industry is already largely driven by foreign companies. With ever more sectors of the Chinese economy opening up to foreign investment in accordance with the country’s WTO accession commitments, new business opportunities for language schools will emerge.
"We are seeing an increase in demand for training across the board," said Peter Atkinson, Director of Training at Language Key. "This particularly clear in the financial sector, banks and accountancy firms. But it is also there in other areas, such as trade and consultancy."
And headhunters say the importance of language skills is growing alongside demand for consultancy and training.
"If you want to stay in the market now, you need to be special," said Lorraine Liu, a training specialists at Shanghai headhunter China Career. "English language skills are another dimension in the job market."
In the months and years to come, however, the industry will have to deal with one crucial element: there are not enough quality teachers. This shortage of qualified instructors has been chronic for over a decade but as standards rise, clients are reluctant to accept poor trainers and programs.
This is reflected in changes to company recruitment policies says Andy Zajac, general manager of Educate.ws, a corporate training and e-learning materials provider.
"Training providers are increasingly realizing a native speaker will not cut the mustard. Fewer companies are providing free flights to native speakers [as part of a contract] and seeking more experienced staff. Online training offers a solution and also allows a company to reach part of the market otherwise difficult to access."
Whatever other changes the job market may undergo, English is definitely an essential asset. In larger cities, it is a well-established part of the school curriculum. But the pace of learning is being cranked up ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The tide of interest is also washing the other way, as China’s economic power develops. This trend is to be expected, just as the launch of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik in 1957 caused a hike in interest in Russian, and Japan’s thriving economy in the late 1980s fostered Nippon-philia.
The US State Department has allocated US$1.3 billion to Chinese language education in schools in the next five years.
China’s government is also heavily supporting this advance in language education. More than 20,000 civil servants and athletes are already enrolled in an English learning program and training is filtering down through the service industry to taxi drivers and staff at top-end restaurants in an attempt to provide better service to a clientele that may speak only one language.
It’s not as if learning a second language is anything new to people in China. Almost everybody in the country speaks Mandarin and at least one other dialect. Perhaps this will ease the way for an educated and multilingual future.