Implications for ESL as English becomes a Basic Skill

By Kirsten Winkler

Being involved in the education start-up scene in the US as well as here in Europe, English is probably the language I deal with most throughout the day. I am a German native speaker, living in France but because of my work as blogger and consultant nearly all my business talks, emails and blog posts are in English.

There is even the phenomenon that I exchange messages in English with my contacts in Germany because we find it more convenient. It is actually pretty hard to talk about “Netz Bildung”, e.g. online education in German. I feel that I am lost for words; it takes too long to remember the matching vocabulary so the effort of switching to German is often “too much”.

Another interesting trend I came across when meeting and talking to young European entrepreneurs is that we used to speak European. One might start a sentence in French, switch to English in the middle and another one adds some thoughts in German, Spanish or Italian. Nevertheless English is the most common ground.

Now what does this mean for ESL as a market? First thing we need to state is that English is not an extra in your CV anymore, it is a must. I would even go so far as to say that people expect that you speak English at least at an intermediate level. And that changes a lot for language learners.

The Wallstreet Journal recently published an article in which the author states that in Europe it is far more interesting to have yet another language at hand to stand out from the crowd of talented job seekers. The WSJ suggests to learn languages based on the potential outcome when looking for a job and takes German as a potentially lucrative option as the job market is still pretty stable and the country is looking for high skilled workers.

And the Boston Globe stated that “basic job skills aren’t that basic anymore”. Today people in so called lower skilled jobs have to deal with new technology and it is increasingly demanded that they also speak at least one other language. For most parts of the world this again is English.

Now, if English is as important as your native language or basic math and literacy it means that the motivation to learn it is fundamentally different from any other language “on the market”. This also results of course in a rising demand in parts of the world that are underserved at the moment. It also turns ESL / EFL into an even more competitive market than already before.

In the industrialised non-English speaking countries the public school systems still seem to do an OK job in teaching English up to a decent level and we also need to take into consideration that in the technology world people can’t get away from English. All major publications and blogs are written in English and the goal of every young programmer is of course to work one day in the Silicon Valley and the US centered pop culture also has a share in this.

All in all, I believe that in the coming years there are far more chances in specialised verticals within the ESL space than “just” teaching English. As most people will get their English “primer” in school and via various ways in informal learning, the real difference in English will be the the actual proficiency. Below you will find three example niches where I see possibilities for independent teachers as well as for schools.

Vocabulary coaching

English is known for its ever increasing treasure trove of vocabulary but most non-native speakers are using just a tiny friction of it. Special courses that teach new words either on a broader level or specialised for a certain job or field of interest have the potential to attract clients.

Accent coaching

Accents can be pretty tricky for non-native speakers in every language and English is no exception here. And there are two sides to this business opportunity. On the one hand, students might have trouble in understanding spoken accents by English speakers. There is also a demand to decrease one’s own native accent and to get closer to a plain US or British English.

Cultural coaching

Language is always a part of the culture and there are many bricks to drop. Anyone who lived in a foreign country for a longer period of time will know this and I can tell you that I’ve had my fair share here in France. Tying those two aspects together can be a tremendous help for people relocating to English speaking countries and each of them has its own culture code that needs to be learned.

Those services can be offered online but I also see a strong component in face to face teaching here, especially in the accent and cultural coaching space.

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