February 2006 issue

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Beyond language acquisition

Language plus activity programmes, which team language tuition with a specific interest, remain a niche sector of the language travel industry despite having clear benefits for the agents and schools that offer them, as well as the students who take up such programmes. Gillian Evans reports.

Just think of any hobby or sport and you';re sure to find a course that combines it with language learning. Although a niche sector of the language travel market, these language plus activity programmes remain important for the students that take them as well as the schools and agents that include them in their range of programmes.

Language plus activity programmes attract different types of students: language travel veterans with a good knowledge of the language, who are looking for a different type of language learning experience; those looking for an alternative experience who are persuaded to study a language while overseas in order to better understand the culture of a foreign country, for example, learning Spanish and dance while in Cuba; or those with a real passion for a particular activity who want to soak up all aspects of their favourite hobby';s culture.

This latter scenario is often the case for students at Centro de Idiomas Quorum in Malaga, Spain, which offers a Spanish and Flamenco course. Jose Mendez, International Admissions Manager at the school, explains, "The students that participate have a passion for Flamenco and that is what pushes them to take the course. They are more interested in the beauty of the dance, the music and the folklore than in the Spanish courses."

Masafumi Oya at Mainichi Communications agency in Japan says that among their clientele, language plus activity programmes appeal mainly to 24-to-30 year olds. "They do not have a lot of time because they need to work in their home country, and they have [good] English skills already and are taking an activity-led programme as a kind of [vacation]," he says. Chris Leckie at Rotorua English Language Academy in Rotorua, New Zealand, adds that their interest-led programmes attract not only working Japanese, but also seniors. "We have older Japanese students who have retired or have time on their hands for other reasons, and study plus activities is appropriate for them," she says.

Clive Oliver, Director of Unique New Zealand in Auckland, New Zealand, reports that the core business for their activity programmes comes from the Asian markets of Korea, Thailand, Japan and Taiwan, with growing interest from Chile and Saudi Arabia. In Italy, however, Andrea Moradei at Centro Koinè in Florence notes, "US participants are especially interested in these programmes. They have a [good knowledge] of the Italian culture and their approach to the language is related to all the cultural aspects."

At Exsportise in the UK, which specialises in sports and language tuition, Chris Bray relates that they accept a good mix of nationalities from across Western Europe on their courses, as well as students from the UK, and he adds, "Last year, we had students from China, and it looks like the Far East is going to become an increasingly fertile marketplace".

Advantages for students
For students, there are a range of advantages to taking language plus activity programmes. It is widely believed that language acquisition can be quicker as the language can be used with native speakers and in real-life situations revolving around a non-academic interest. Through such programmes, students also become more immersed in the host country';s culture.

Leckie observes that students enrolling on their programmes, which incorporate horse riding and farm shows, for example, or garden tours for older learners, can "improve their English and also have a real Kiwi experience, learning a lot about our culture and what the region has to offer". She also points out that as people in employment usually have a limited amount of annual leave, they want to pack as much as possible into a short visit. "By joining an activity-led programme, all arrangements are made by the agent and the school, and it is a worthwhile, hassle-free break."

Michael O';Grady of Byron Bay English Language School in Byron Bay, Australia, maintains that combining language learning with a sport enhances the learning experience. "I believe it is a good way to live – study is all mind-based while sport is mostly physical... and the combination is an enriching way to fill a day. Students become ineffective learners if they are forever in a classroom situation."

Bray at Exsportise adds that practising sports brings out other qualities in students, such as teamwork, leadership, discipline, communication, friendship and motivation. Moradei agrees with these points, saying, "The motivation to learn [on activity courses] is stronger in this type of participant."

For Italian language learners, Moradei says that there is a trend towards learning Italian for pleasure, which makes Italian-plus programmes a popular choice. "The interest in Italian language is joined with the interests in cuisine, nature and art," he says. As a consequence, Centro Koinè offers Italian courses combined with sailing around Elba Island, art and archaeology, and learning about Italian wine.

Low uptake
Despite the proliferation of such programmes and their clear benefits to students, there is no remarkable growth trend towards activity-led courses. Most language-plus-activity providers say that their annual enrolment for activity programmes is either static or, at best, slowly increasing. As these are premium-priced products, one of the main barriers to growth is cost, a point acknowledged by Mendez. "The programme is harder to sell because of the price," he says. Agent Kian Hwa Le at UCPA - University and College Placement Agency in Indonesia says that although they offer English and sports and English with dance or film making they have little interest in them because of the relatively high price tag.

Osman Imamoglu from BTO agency in Turkey reports that, at their agency, language-plus programmes have decreased in popularity since 2001 as a direct consequence of their high price. "Between 1998 and 2000, we sent many students on courses to Switzerland and Austria for skiing as well as to learn and practise their foreign language. However, after the 2001 economic breakdown in Turkey, we stopped organising such courses as it became extremely expensive for parents."

Tim Ruthven, Chief Executive of Achievement Institute of Language, which has schools in Christchurch and Dunedin in New Zealand, believes that the current high rate of the New Zealand dollar has affected take-up of their activity programmes. "Competition [and] price wars have made [English plus programmes] unattractive to provide quote for as of late," he says. "The high dollar has also made it difficult for some agents to get a critical mass of participants. The only reason we continue to quote on these is that they can generate long-term enrolments and they please agents."

Benefits to schools
Although there are obvious barriers to growth in this sector, as well as the fact that such courses require considerable resources to organise and execute successfully, often in liaison with a partner company, Elisabeth Marandet at Afel International in Nice, France, maintains that offering language plus activity programmes has spin-off benefits for the schools that provide them.

"[Students] can ask for something they wish to do and we make it happen. Even if it is not really a [moneyspinner], it is excellent for the image and the reputation of our school," she states. She adds that language-plus programmes in the product range can also be an indication of a quality language school. "[They are] high quality programmes [that] require good management and strong logistics," she asserts.

For some schools, language plus activity programmes also bring additional business. Oliver observes, "Students who attend the [language plus] course often decide to come back and study long-term at both Unique New Zealand and in the New Zealand school system." And Leckie underlines that some programmes "attract short-course students who may not have come otherwise".

In Australia, O';Grady at Byron Bay English Language School says that often the English plus courses offered are taken as an "add-on to a longer course, for example, the two-week surfing course as part of a 10-to-12 week general English or Cambridge [exam] programme".

Malvern House in London, UK, extended its portfolio of courses specifically to offer its long-term students additional choice. "Many students get bored with their general English course. They want to use their language skills and cut their teeth on practical courses," relates Katherine Bradley, Marketing Manager at the school. As a result, over the last few years, Malvern House has launched English plus film, art and literature courses. "They have proved popular, mostly with our long-term general English students as it gives them the opportunity to have a break from their general English course and learn something a bit different whilst still practising their English skills," says Bradley. "English plus film has been particularly popular as the idea of making a film is very appealing and students study a range of subjects including film genre, camera techniques, music and sound effects, editing, lighting and film distribution."

Although the language plus activity sector remains a niche area for many language schools and agents, it is nonetheless a steadfast and important component of the language travel market. Bradley believes that such niche offerings will become even more important to the English language teaching market in the future. "[The industry] will need to move away from teaching English as a commodity," she asserts. "The future will be a language college that has 50 arrows in its quiver aimed at niche markets."

Agent involvement

Many language plus activity providers state that, in general, agents have been uninterested in their offerings. "Agents must gather, sort and manage a lot of information about a lot of schools," observes Kenneth Gardner at Vancouver English Centre in Vancouver, BC, Canada. "It is natural for them to be hesitant to avoid new programmes, unless there is an obvious demand from their clients."

Sergey Kuzmintsev, Programme Coordinator at Students International agency in Russia, confirms that demand at their agency remains low for specific activity programmes. "Activity-led courses are not a big part of our business, not because we cannot [offer them] – we work with institutions which have language plus different professions, sports, etc – but because there is not very big interest from [our] clients." Nevertheless, demand has grown in recent years. "Three-to-four years ago, we had only several enquiries for such courses per year. Now we have approximately 50-to-60 students per year for activity-led courses. It will not be the biggest part [of our business] but it is very good, like a ‘supporting'; business," says Kuzmintsev.

For many other agencies, language plus activity programmes have been relegated to the back burner due to low demand. Masafumi Oya from Mainichi Communications in Japan is not alone when he says they do not market language plus activity programmes as they are "not profitable for us". Clive Oliver at Unique New Zealand suggests that some agents are put off selling language plus courses because "higher commission is paid on full-time English language courses". In addition, Chris Leckie from Rotorua English Language Academy in New Zealand believes that some agents may be concerned that by offering more tourist- and hobby-oriented courses, they may dilute their image as serious education consultants.

"Some clients may see [courses] as lightweight options in terms of English language learning. Agents need to have confidence in the quality of the school and the programme they are selling," she says. "At our school, students on activity-led programmes are usually serious students who genuinely want to improve their English. They are expected to work hard in their general English classes in the mornings, and to use English throughout the afternoon on activities."

There are good reasons for agencies to include language plus programmes in their portfolios. Gardner underlines that agents can attract more students by offering special programmes. In addition, he says, "Agents can earn extra commissions by selling additional courses to students who are already applying for the regular programmes."

And it can put agents a cut above the competition. "The uniqueness of a particular area or programme can give an agent a strong selling point," states Leckie. Gardner agrees. "I think it is good for agents to specialise in one or two specialty programmes. That way, they can attract students who otherwise might have gone to a competitor." He adds, "We work closely with individual agents to develop custom programmes [such as a childcare programme] for their particular markets. This helps them to elevate themselves above their competitors."

From an agency perspective, Kirill Ivanov from International University Centre Znaniye in Russia says that it is important to be able to offer a whole spectrum of language courses. "We must live up to clients'; expectations and offer all the scope of programmes presented on the language travel market."

No end of choice

Many of the language/activity combinations offered by language schools are linked to the location of the school itself. At Afel International in Nice, France, for example, as well as language plus French cooking and wine tasting, and French with golf, the school offers French with art and crafts. According to Elisabeth Marandet at the school, this is because "we are in an area quite famous for this – there is a perfume factory in Grasse, pottery in Vallauris, and glassblowing in Biot".

Located in a popular surf resort, Byron Bay English Language School in Australia capitalises on the reputation of its location. "Students study part-time English and join a two-week learn-to-surf course for four afternoons per week," says Director, Michael O';Grady. "Our professional surfing school provides surfboard/body-board, wetsuit, rash vest, sunscreen and transport. It';s great fun and very safe!" The school also runs a more broad activity programme that combines English learning with a whole range of activities from sea-kayaking with dolphins and bush walking, to making and learning to play the didgeridoo.

At Worldwide School of English in Auckland, New Zealand, courses include English and farm experience, where students can experience life on a real New Zealand farm, and a new summer sports programme, which allows students to supplement their English lessons with surfing, scuba diving or sailing.

The sheer range of activity programmes is growing year on year, with tasty new courses, which often mirror tourism trends in a particular area, being put on school menus around the world. For example, Rotorua English Language Academy in Rotorua, New Zealand, recently launched a four-week English with spa treatments course. Mornings are spent learning English while the afternoons include spa treatments at Rotorua';s famous spa centres. "We decided to launch this programme to promote the uniqueness of our region, and because many visitors to Rotorua come here for treatment for arthritis," explains Chris Leckie at the school. "The healing qualities of Rotorua';s spa waters are world-renowned."

The Centre International d';Etudes Françaises at the Université Catholique de l';Ouest Angers in France is developing a sports programme for French and international students. "It';s not usual to promote sports in a French university but foreign students, especially the American ones, are very interested in it," says Marc Melin at the centre.

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.




Education New
      Zealand Trust
English Australia

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Algonquin and
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Bodwell College
Bow Valley College
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      School District # 79
Delta School District
Fraser Cascade -
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Ottawa International
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Richmond School
      District # 38
University of Calgary
West Vancouver
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Aspect (Australia,
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Oxford Brookes
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Study Group
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Centre d'Etudes des
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Institut Français Riéra
IS Aix-en-Provence
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F+U Academy
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Est Ovest
Istituto Linguistico

EC English
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inlingua Malta
Malta Tourism

Education New
      Zealand Trust

Liden & Denz
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Cape Studies -
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Eurocentres Cape
Geos Cape Town
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inlingua Language
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LAL Cape Town
LAL Durban
Shane Global
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Estudio Sampere
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Kings College
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EF Language
      Colleges Ltd
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American Language
Kaplan Educational
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Zoni Language

CELTiC (Schools)