April 2007 issue

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Made to measure

Despite the premium price tag attached to one-to-one language courses, their appeal is spreading. No longer favoured solely by professionals looking for a quick, effective and relevant language learning experience, one-to-one courses are now also popular with juniors, university students and tourists. Gillian Evans reports.

The “Rolls Royce of teaching” is how William Rubinstein at International House (IH) Nice in France describes one-to-one language tuition. Priced at the top end of the market and fine-tuned to suit each individual client, one-to-one language courses are certainly the cream of language tuition programmes.

“The beauty of one-to-one [language] courses is that they can be totally customised to a student’s needs – what they want, where they want and how much,” underlines Nancy Forman at Language Liaison in Pacific Palisades, CA, USA.

Like most providers of one-to-one courses, IELE Spanish language school in Seville, Spain, is “flexible and willing to meet the needs and wishes of our students”, asserts Macarena Hidalgo at the school. She confirms, “The teacher and student find a pace and setting that is most suitable for the individual.”

While the schools and teachers of one-to-one courses have to work hard to ensure a perfect match between the client and the course, agents, too, have a vital role to play. Antonella Hutton of GA International Study in Switzerland, says, “Before starting the course, we ask the client to provide us with a list of duties, reports and possible client presentations that they are expected to do in German in the future. We then send the information to the school and they provide a course that matches the client’s needs.”

Professional appeal

Owing to their flexibility and the intensive nature of the learning, one-to-one courses have traditionally been favoured by business professionals, often sent to learn a language by their company, who are footing the bill. Florian Meierhofer at BWS Germanlingua, which has schools in Munich and Berlin, comments, “The typical participant in one-to-one lessons is the professional. Usually, they have very little time, need to speak German fluently [as fast as possible] and money doesn’t really matter if the lessons are effective.”

Language schools in countries with rapidly expanding economies such as China – which is witnessing an influx of international companies – are experiencing a surge in demand for one-to-one language programmes. Mary Lou Pyle, Agency Coordinator at Mandarin House in Shanghai, China, says that their one-to-one programmes are mainly popular with foreign business professionals who are working in China.

But one-to-one programmes appeal to a much wider audience than just professionals. As Paula Bailey at Frances King School of English in London, UK, says, one-to-one learning suits “anyone who needs to make maximum progress in a limited amount of time or wishes to focus on specific areas, such as business, law, writing and pronunciation, English for academic purposes or subjects such as art and design, media [and] economics”.

At the Southbank Institute of Tafe (SBIT) Language Centre in Brisbane, Australia, Director of Studies, Vicky Parkinson, says, “There are two main kinds of students taking private tuition at SBIT: students who would like to prepare for academic tests like Ielts intensively; and students who have young children and only have a couple of hours a week free when their children are in day care.”

According to Barry Haywood of Eurolingua Institute in Montpellier, France, foreigners looking to settle in France are another target for one-to-one course providers. “We are in the south of France and there is a great influx of non-native French speakers – British, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, German – buying property in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and they come to [us] for French classes,” he says.

Wider range of clients

More recently, some schools have experienced a fanning out of demand to even more client sectors, as Erin Corcoran at Don Quijote in Salamanca, Spain, observes. “We’ve seen one-to-one demand expand to cover a wider range of nationalities, ages and motivations,” she says. “If, years ago, people thought of one-to-one classes as a luxury for older students, executive students or certain nationalities, now we see interest across the board.”

Norman Renshaw at UK-based InTuition, which has a wide network of home tuition providers, mentions that the number of juniors on their one-to-one home tuition programmes has increased in recent years. He says, “Our courses are really popular as a preliminary course for long-term students who are coming over with a low [language] level. They can come to us for a two-week course, which helps them settle in, boosts their confidence in their language skills for when they start their longer group course and gives them a base.” He adds, “Students invariably make friends with their host tutor which can be a real asset for them during their stay.”

But it is not only those with professional or academic goals who are turning to one-to-one courses. Leisure learners are seeking out private tuition to give their language competence a boost to enable them to make the most of their holiday, says Angelo Perugini at Istituto Galilei in Florence, Italy. “One-to-one courses [have] attained high popularity, to our surprise, also with people not directly connected with languages for specific purposes,” he comments. “People simply discover the pleasure of speaking another language and want to get results in a short period of time, such as during their vacation, and [they choose a] one-to-one course because they represent the only possibility to learn a language [well] in three-to-four weeks.”

Anne Debard at ARDS Holding in Montpellier, France, makes a similar observation. As well as professionals, their one-to-one courses are popular with “older people learning more for tourism,” as well as “younger people, when the parents don’t want them to go out on their own and they really want serious and quick results”.

The draw of one-to-one programmes is global, as they attract clients from all over the world. However, as these courses are generally favoured by those looking to spend a relatively short time studying, short-haul destinations are often preferred. Gerald Soubeyran of Unosel member agency, Effective Linguistique in France, asserts, “[Our] most popular country [for one-to-one courses] is the UK because these are short courses usually and clients do not want to waste time travelling.” Dave O’Grady, Course Director at the Slaney Language Centre in Wexford, Ireland, reinforces this trend. “Although the majority of our younger students tend to come from Korea and Japan, most of our one-to-one students are European, especially German, French, Spanish and Italian, in that order,” he reports.

Cost versus benefits

Private language courses are among the most expensive language programmes available to students. According to O’Grady, the one-to-one course at Slaney Language Centre is “more than twice as expensive as a group course of the same duration, and our executive programme - which contains twice as many lessons - is six times more expensive”.

However, the high price tag has not hampered growth in this sector, according to Carina Azzopardi, Director of Studies at Linguatime School of English in Sliema, Malta. She says, “Students who are motivated and feel the need to improve their English seem to be willing to pay extra.”

Perugini in Italy believes that prospective clients no longer look at the cost of courses in isolation but rather in the context of what they will achieve for those costs. They are usually willing to pay extra for a course that provides the greatest learning possibilities in the shortest length of time.

Haywood agrees, saying, “One-to-one programmes appeal to an affluent market which is more time-sensitive than cost-sensitive. Young professionals need a short, sharp and cost-effective course to meet their career-related linguistic objectives. ‘Cost-effective’ means achieving the desired result in the minimum time.”

Extra-curricular activities

As time is precious to those on one-to-one courses, many students are not interested in taking part in out-of-class activities, although those who are learning in language schools can usually participate in the schools’ group activities programme anyway.

There are, however, some one-to-one clients who want specific extra-curricular activities included in their course. Debard in France relates that courses at their school can be custom-made to suit not only the student’s learning expectations but also their different hobbies and interests. “Depending on the objectives and the [language] level the person wishes to reach, we do build up a tailor-made and really personalised programme,” she says. “Any other activity – sport, culture, etc – is also previously defined with the client. Some come for French and certain sport activities, for which we also organise the sessions, or they come for culture and they also have a [bespoke] programme.”

José Lopez, Director of Instituto Hemingway in Bilbao, Spain, says more and more of their one-to-one clients are taking extra-curricular activities such as cookery classes. “We feel this is because the activities balance out the intensiveness of the lessons and allow the students to both learn and to experience life here,” he asserts.

On the up

Demand for one-to-one programmes is strong and many agents report a hike in numbers in this sector in 2006. Soubeyran states, “Between 2004 and 2006 we increased our number of one-to-one clients by over 20 per cent. These courses now represent 27 per cent of our junior business and 12 per cent of our adult business.”

Mohammed Zakir Hossain, President of South Asian International Education and Language Travel Association, which has members recruiting students from a wide range of countries including India, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Korea and Japan, says, “Fifteen per cent of students were taking one-to-one courses in [2006]. In 2005, it was only five per cent.”

As a consequence of the high level of interest, Don Quijote is investing more in the promotion of its one-to-one offerings this year. “We’ve increased our marketing of one-to-one courses, making them stand out more in our marketing materials and in our communications to agencies, and we’ve developed new courses and packages around our one-to-one classes,” states Corcoran. Don Quijote has launched a new programme called Executive Premium, where classes of a maximum of four students are combined with one or two hours of personal language tuition daily. “We definitely expect demand for [some form of] one-to-one classes to continue to grow, so we’ve worked to develop flexible products to meet that demand,” explains Corcoran. A substantial amount of work by both schools and agents goes into a successful personalised learning programme, to ensure a perfect marriage between the course and the student. However, both sides relate that the extra work is usually worthwhile as the rate of repeat bookings and referrals from the one-to-one sector is high. According to Debard, a satisfied one-to-one client results in a very loyal customer. “These clients are the best marketing source, as they recommend their experience and make other people come [too],” she relates.

Learning in a teacher’s home

The ultimate language immersion experience is undoubtedly home tuition programmes where the student lives and learns in the teacher’s home. Students not only benefit from one-to-one tuition but are also able to practise their language skills with their teacher throughout the day.

Barry Haywood, International Director at Eurolingua Institute, which has home tuition centres in various countries throughout the world, says, “Outside of formal tuition hours, the student benefits from family social interaction, meeting and conversing with friends and neighbours, and of course participation in the family’s social and cultural activities.”

Some language schools specialise only in home tuition while others, such as Indalhispánica Escuela de Español in Almería, Spain, offer both home tuition and school-based one-to-one courses. According to Germán Fernández, Director of Indalhispánica, one-to-one teaching is becoming more popular as it provides such an intense language learning experience.

Norman Renshaw at UK-based InTuition, which specialises in home tuition in a number of locations, believes there are several advantages of home tuition programmes above and beyond the benefits of accelerated learning. With a wide selection of teachers, InTuition can place students in almost any location and find an exact match for their professional, academic or recreational needs. He explains, “If you are learning English and you are in marine insurance then we can place you with someone with direct experience in this sector. Equally literature, music – in fact, with a large database of host tutors, we have the flexibility to cover a wide range of professions and subject areas. In a traditional language school the pool of experience is much more limited.”

There are, however, some potential disadvantages of taking a home tuition programme, as Florian Meierhofer at BWS Germanlingua in Germany points out. “It’s quite a big risk to spend one, two or even three weeks so close together with a person that you don’t know,” he says. “That’s the reason why many people hesitate to take such a programme.”

Agent Gerald Soubeyran of Effective Linguistique in France says this is why potential home tuition clients need to receive thorough counselling before departure. “In France like everywhere else, people want to know what they are buying before they send their cheques!” he says, “Ninety per cent of our clients want to be offered a family profile before confirming their booking. If the family does not suit them, then they want an alternative offer.”

The best of both worlds

While pure one-to-one language programmes remain attractive to students looking for accelerated, tailor-made learning, an increasing proportion of students choose to supplement their group course with additional one-to-one tuition, which by all accounts is a highly successful recipe.

At Access English in Toronto, ONT, Canada, where the combination programmes are more popular than pure one-to-one courses, Camille Withaney says, “There are benefits to studying in a group environment and using the one-to-one lessons to focus on student goals.”

Paula Bailey at Frances King School of English in London, UK, points out that some students, particularly those aged between 19 and 25, want to improve their language skills but also want to interact with other people.

Angela Oliver at Unique New Zealand Education in Auckland, New Zealand also makes this point. “Morning classes followed by one-to-one lessons in the afternoon or early evening are popular with students who have limited time to reach a specific goal but who also want group lessons in the morning to maximise their multi-audience speaking opportunities,” she says. In comparison to one-to-one programmes, a combination of group and private tuition costs less, although Florian Meierhofer at BWS Germanlingua in Germany argues that price is not the only consideration. “The more cost-sensitive students choose the combination programmes, but cost is not the only aspect for that decision,” he says. “Quite [a lot of] students like this combination of group tuition (including making new friends) and the more demanding one-to-one lessons.” At Linguatime in Sliema, Malta, students can choose to take a combination course comprising 20 group lessons in the morning and 10 one-to-one lessons in the afternoon. “These courses are popular as the student can have the best of both worlds,” says Carina Azzopardi at the school. She says growth in demand for the combination programmes has been outstripping that of one-to-one courses, especially among “Korean students who travel far to come to Malta and are very motivated to get the most out of their language course”.

Meierhofer in Germany also reports growing numbers of younger students opting for combination language programmes at his school. “Some students realise that the cost of the more expensive one-to-one lessons can be justified by the effect of specific treatment of their personal language problems,” he says.

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