While strolling gently through the internet this morning I caught a glimpse of the possibly chilling future of language schools.  And we were defunct.  Shabbily dressed individuals hanging around outside railway stations bearing signs reading “Will teach for food”.  Or worse,  hanging around outside playgrounds and shopping malls targetting the teenagers as they come past:

“Conditionals man, you need conditionals?  I got em right here.  What d’you want?  first, second third?  I got mixed, but they’ll cost you.”

“Hey!  Don’t go getting stuff from him!  He don’t know his pluperfect subjunctive from his past participle!  I got what you need – words man!  Thousands of them!  I’ll do you a deal – ten for a euro?  How’s that? No good?  How about fifty for a euro?”

“You leave him alone.  I’m talking here.  At least I know my third person agreement!”

At this point the scene degenerates into a scuffle and the shocked children run off wailing before the police arrive.

So why this scene of gloom and doom for the language school?

I suspect that as a business model, it’s time has come for a number of reasons.

(1)  Let’s face it – the teaching that occurs in the state sector, which the private language school essentially supplements, has improved dramatically over the years to a point where there is little differentiation of teaching materials and teaching practices between the state and private sectors.

(2)  Access to English language media has improved.  It’s not uncommon to talk to people with little formal language training but who have an extensive vocabulary and relatively strong grammar skills, purely because of their interactions with film, television, music and everything they find on the internet.  For academics, whose key publications are often in English, their working knowledge of the language is quite advanced.

(3)  Costs.  Language schools can be prohibitively expensive to run.  There are the teachers’ salaries, associated tax and social security payments, ancillary staff in administrative, sales and marketing positions.  Light, heat, water etc….   it all adds up.  And these costs then have to be represented in the price that is charged to the customer – the students.    Which makes it an expensive business, learning a language.  And if it can be done cheaper…?

(4)  The rise of online learning systems.  Which is where it can be done cheaper.  The systems are now in place, and are sufficiently reliable, that there is no real need for the learner to enter the physical building of the language school.  Even face to face time, that much vaunted ace in the hole of the real world, can be reproduced electronically with video conferencing.  Skype lessons anyone?

(5)  Language schools are the middle men.  This was the point that occurred to me this morning:  language schools essentially provide the interface between the materials producers and the materials consumers.  John and Liz Soars write their latest Headway book, CUP print it and distribute it, the school buys it and I teach it to my class.  Why?  Only because this has been the traditional model thus far and no-one’s come up with a better alternative.  Yet.

My prediction is the gradual death of the language school and rising costs and falling student numbers conspire to close us down.  Language teaching will continue as it ever has, but the model of the private language school will alas be no more.  The giant brands in the world of EFL will develop and maintain online educational platforms (most of them are already nearly there).  The publishers will employ the teachers directly to mediate the lessons in their online environments and will supply the materials directly to the learners, thus finally cutting out the middle men.  And we’ll all be out of a job.

See you down by the train station!