February 2005 issue

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Innovative learning

Although not a new concept in the language travel industry, activity-led language courses are a developing sector and agents are beginning to sit up and take notice. Bethan Norris finds out about the latest developments.

Language plus activity courses, where students combine language learning with instruction in an activity such as scuba diving, skiing, flower arranging or salsa dancing, were once the preserve of schools catering for niche markets and not universally available.

However, their growth in popularity in recent years has fuelled the devlopment of new and more unusual language courses. In the competitive environment, many schools are now catering for this market.

Eke Wijnia from Plus Taalreizen agency in the Netherlands says, ''As far as I can see, the number and variety of language plus activity courses has grown over the past years. For schools it is a way to be different and to offer something extra or different in comparison to the competition.''

For serious language students and travellers alike, language plus activity courses are an attractive proposition as they offer the chance to engage more fully with the country they are visiting. Participating in an activity enables students to mix with local people and with increased globalisation, more and more people are attracted to the idea of experiencing activities in another country that they may only be familiar with from television or advertising.

A common finding among language schools is that specific courses often tend to appeal to certain student markets. ''Most [of the courses combined] with sports activities are attended by an age group of 17 to 29, whilst others with culture are attended by [students aged] 30 to 45,'' observes Antonello Cappitta from Universal Language Services in Malta, who adds that most of the requests for all their language and activity courses are from Asian students.

At Cicero Languages International in the UK, Jenny Bodenham has noticed a distinct nationality bias among the students enrolling on the activity courses they offer. ''Certain courses are particularly popular with the Japanese - flower arranging, afternoon tea, cake decorating, aromatherapy, gardens - while the sports activities - golf, tennis, horse riding - also tend to be popular with European students,'' she relates.

The appeal of language plus activity courses for many students is to combine language learning with holiday activities, but Bodenham adds that some students may have more serious intentions behind their choice of course. ''Some students are thinking of following a career in a subject - such as beauty therapy, aromatherapy, cake decorating - and although our courses are strictly leisure courses that do not lead to any qualification, [students] still wish to acquire as much knowledge as possible in their chosen subject,'' she says.

David Hurford from Regent Australia testifies to the high expectations of students. ''Most students expect no less than an expert golfer or a certified Padi [scuba diving] instructor to run their course,'' he confirms, while Jose Mendez from Centro de Idiomas Quorum in Spain says of their Spanish and Flamenco course, ''The people teaching the Flamenco are experienced, qualified instructors with local and international experience. Students like to know that they are receiving a quality education for the time and money they are putting into learning Flamenco.''

With such a wide student market to draw from, language schools around the world generally look to their local area for the expertise and inspiration to develop new courses (see box right). And while attracting new student markets can be an important reason for introducing language plus activity courses, some schools are finding that these courses offer other advantages too.

Magi Scallion from Banff Education Centre in Canada believes that the student markets for their summer activity programme and snow and ski programme are more resilient in the face of global changes than those for other courses. ''Our language and activity courses have remained very popular over the past several years, even with a general decrease in our student population suffered by many ESL schools,'' she asserts. Bodenham in the UK echoes this finding. ''Despite a downturn generally in bookings in recent years due to international circumstances - war, terrorism, Sars - the English plus activity courses remain popular and are attracting increasing numbers of students,'' she says.

When it comes to marketing their courses overseas, schools report differing levels of interest from agents. In our previous feature on this topic, the majority of schools found that agents were reluctant to promote these types of courses (see Language Travel Magazine, January 2004, pages 16-17), and this remains a common experience among many schools today. ''I'm surprised agents aren't more interested [in our language and activity courses] because of scuba diving's popularity,'' says Warren Milner from Milner International College of English in Australia. ''More students sign up after arrival rather than pre-booking.''

However, while most schools therefore rely heavily on direct bookings from the Internet and word-of-mouth recommendation to sell their language plus activity courses, there is evidence that this trend may be changing. Gavin Eyre from Cape Communication Centre in South Africa says that agents are important to provide information to students about any new courses they may be developing. ''Our agent markets in these new product fields are very important to us and we get lots of agents looking for new products to sell,'' he says.

Margaret Dyer from SA Adelaide Language Centre in Australia says that their adventure tour courses get ''a lot of agent interest'', and adds that agent input in marketing such courses becomes more valuable if the agent has ''experienced aspects of the programme first hand''.

As Alexandra Albert from Pan Pazifik agency in Germany recounts, ''You can book so many different courses people never thought of before. Many clients just do not know [about] English plus activities and are very interested when they learn more about them.''

Course range

Language and activity courses tend to vary depending on the destination where they are offered, particularly those that incorporate activities that rely on geographical and climatic characteristics. The most popular places to learn a language plus sporting activities are in those destinations featuring a warm or snowy climate, or distinctive natural landscapes.

The agency Pan Pazifik Sprachreisen & Bildung Down Under in Germany specialises in advising students about language plus activity courses in Australia and New Zealand. Alexandra Albert at the agency says that the language plus activity sector is well developed there. ''Both countries have so much to offer regarding sports and outdoor activities,'' she says.

Malta, too, is a country that has a well-developed tradition of offering language plus activity courses due to local expertise in scuba diving and other water sports. ''We have adapted these courses from the first day we started operations as we realised that there was a great demand for activities other than the actual English programme,'' says Antonello Cappitta at Universal Language Services in Malta.

For the newer, less established language teaching destinations, language plus activity courses can also be a way of gaining the attention of students looking for a more exotic experience. Gladys Portela from Academia Latinoamericana de Español in Costa Rica says that their school has offered Travel and Spanish, and Latin dance and Spanish courses for one year now. ''We designed them to give more options to our visitors to learn about dance and to get to know Costa Rica,'' she says.

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