January 2004 issue

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Active learning

Activity-led language courses, which combine language learning with something extra, are not a new concept in language training, but agents in many countries are still not selling these programmes.
Amy Baker finds out why not.

Shane Global Village (SGV) London in the UK offers a rather unique programme called English Out There, which involves practising English conversation in real life situations in London whilst undertaking a range of tourist activities. Explaining one of the benefits for a school of offering such an activity-led language training programme, SGV School Director, Nikola Hall, says, 'It is extremely beneficial to run a course that differentiates you from the hundreds of other London EFL schools out there and, so far, interest for 2004 is very positive.'

Of course, as well as benefits for the school, there are many benefits for a student taking a language plus course that includes specific targeted activities. Very often, the student will spend more time outside of the classroom on such a course and, as Din Heiman of Rennert Bilingual in New York, USA, explains, students are supplied with 'a powerful combination of language skills within a specific environment that suits their personal ambitions'.

Language plus courses vary widely but what they have in common is a serious emphasis on the fact that activity-based learning - such as English plus dance, for example, at Rennert Bilingual - can not only provide interesting after-class options but also improve the language learning potential for a student.

As Hall at SGV testifies, 'We take care to avoid the misconception that the English Out There course is just another activity programme.' She continues, 'For students who have done a lot of formal studying, it is more interesting and motivating. And an opportunity to put passive knowledge into practice and get to know classmates as well.'

At IS Aix-en-Provence in France, Anna Clara Sainte-Rose says that their language plus programmes, which include French and cooking, French and wine, and French and Provence discovery - with cooking workshops, wine-tasting and relevant local visits, for example - tap into the new tourism trend for 'intelligent vacations'. She adds that students are able to 'combine language studies with discovery or their passion'.

Most language plus programmes, as opposed to general language courses with activities, shape their lessons to the theme of the activities also undertaken in the programme. Activities may take up as much time per week as the language learning component in the classroom. Teaching may be easier too, according to Jane Diesel, Director of Inlingua in Cape Town, South Africa, who claims that motivation among students on language plus courses is high, 'as the language taught is obviously relevant to the interests and enthusiasms of the clients'.

One sector that excels in providing targeted language plus tuition is the one-to-one sector, whereby schools offer individual tuition at a language school or exclusive tuition in a teacher's home. Diesel says that the English plus courses offered at Inlingua - such as English plus wine-tasting, photography or rock climbing - are available as one-to-one tuition or to closed groups, at a similar level of English, which book at the same time.

While it is evidently easier to arrange specific activity-led learning programmes around the requirements of one person or a small group, Diesel points out that there can still be some logistical problems with organising these courses. 'Finding courses that run at the times needed by clients [can be a problem],' she says. 'Many wine and photography courses run part-time or only two or three times a year, which doesn't suit everyone.'

Students at Inlingua Cape Town attend courses in their chosen activity through a third party, which ensures that they are taught by specialists in wine or photography, for example. At Intuition in the UK, which specialises in providing live-in language tuition for students in a teacher's home, activity-led learning is provided by placing a student with a host tutor who has similar interests.

'This makes the course more interesting for both parties,' says Intuition's Norman Renshaw, 'both in terms of language learning and out-of-lesson activities.' He explains that Intuition aims to meet the precise needs of any client, 'be they linguistic or personal - no matter how obscure. [Clients may] want to visit a steam and traction engine rally or take a tour of a stud farm'.

While schools are keen to promote the learning benefits of tailored language plus programmes - 'People will always be more attentive to learning if the theme of a class is relevant and stimulating to them', says Renshaw - they do acknowledge that selling these courses via agents has traditionally been slow. But interest in language plus courses is increasing, say schools, so agents would do well to take note.

'It is still difficult to find agents really involved in such programmes,' says François Manuel of FM Sports et Langues in Verneuil-sur-Seine, France, which offers a range of sporting programmes with a language learning element, in either French, Spanish, English or German. Sports activities, such as soccer, tennis or sailing, take place five days a week. He says student demand has increased by 20 per cent in the last three years and adds, 'Any new agents who understand the new interest of international students would be welcome!'

Karla Trindale of Newport College in Browns Bay near Auckland in New Zealand, which offers English plus sailing, golf, or farm experience, agrees that some of their agents face problems in selling these courses. Heiman in New York reports using 'specialised agents', or obtaining bookings direct from independent students, while Sainte-Rose says 'Agents are less interested in offering such programmes since they are generally not proposed throughout the year. However, it's a pity for the agents, because they will lose market share. It's easy to sell on the web!'

However, Marc Cullen at Cork English College in Ireland, which has been offering language plus programmes for 25 years, reports a turnaround in agent attitude in recent years. 'I find that agents are starting to sell these programmes a bit more now than before,' he says, but he does acknowledge that, 'as [courses] are more expensive, there is less [overall] demand'.

Cullen agrees with Manuel that interest has risen in the last few years, despite the fact that the market base might remain small overall. 'Student demand has increased and continues to do so each year,' he says. 'These are very exciting programmes.' Cork English College offers the three main activities of golf, horse riding and sailing as activity-led programmes combined with English learning.

At his school, Cullen estimates that the price for activity-led training is typically 15 to 20 per cent more expensive than a standard intensive language course. Trindale in New Zealand similarly estimates an average 25 per cent extra cost over standard classes. But she asserts, '[Clients] feel like it's a unique chance to learn and have fun at the same time.'

The age range of clients interested in language plus courses is wide-ranging, although there are indications that different types of course appeal to varying age sectors. For example, for sports-led programmes, such as those offered by FM Sports et Langues, Manuel points to a typical clientele aged between eight and 20 years old. Meanwhile, Diesel says their wine and photography-oriented courses tend to attract 'the much more mature client'.

Across the whole sector, there are clearly opportunities for agents to work more closely with schools providing these courses. Some of the programmes available may appeal to a target audience not previously considered by an agency, because clients are prepared to pay more for the emphasis of the language programme and are not so price sensitive, say schools. This is not today's typical budget-conscious language client perhaps, as outlined by agents (see box above).

According to Heiman at Rennert Bilingual, activity-led programmes that offer experiential learning are booming. As well as English plus dance, the school successfully offers acting and filmmaking combinations with English. 'We are pleased with our success so far,' he says. 'Our development plan calls for expanding our offerings to include music plus English. Along with internship placements, we find these programmes to be the way of the future.'

Agent experience

A number of agents testify that there is little demand from their clientele for specific activity-led language training programmes. In Brazil, for example, Arlette Rechsteiner, Director of Azics Intercambio Cultural, says that they do not offer such programmes, estimating that only one per cent of clients request them.

But lack of demand could be in part fuelled by business culture too. If agents do not offer activity-led learning, even if there is some low level of demand for these courses, there is little opportunity to grow or establish a market.

In China, Maggie Ren, of Beijing Han Yin Consultant Co, acknowledges some students have requested music and dance-led language programmes, 'but we are unable to offer them'. She explains that she doesn't offer such programmes because 'most Chinese students going abroad are poor. If they are studying a programme with planned-in activities, they will have to pay extra money.'

The financial constraints of a market do have an impact on whether language plus courses are popular in that country. Szumilas Renata at MacPherson School of English in Poland points out that cost is a deterrent to enrolment on such programmes at his agency office. 'I never offer such courses as they are more expensive than language programmes,' he says. 'Taking into consideration the bad condition of the Polish economy and the [spending capability] of my clients, I offer them cheap, but at the same time, quality courses, which are the best investment for them.'

In the UK, Jean-Phillippe Morris of Anglophiles Academic, who recruits students from around the world for study abroad programmes, particularly from France, Spain and Asia, tells a different tale. 'For Anglophiles, it is around 40 per cent of our clients that request courses with a theme, such as horse riding, media studies, etc, all with English language included,' he recounts.

Morris explains that activity-led learning can be a selling point for younger clients. 'We feel that [fewer] students between the ages of seven and 18 wish to study during their holidays, so by introducing themed courses, they can learn English while studying something they have an interest or passion in.'

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