The ‘Asian Century’ was a term reportedly coined at a meeting between the premiers of the world’s two most populous nations, India and China, in the late 1980s, characterising a belief that the 21st century would be one dominated by Asian politics, culture and economics. While rising affluence and enviable growth rates fuelled outward study abroad, culture and business is driving interest in inbound language study, most notably in Japan and China.
Japan in particular has been riding a wave created by the spread of its pop culture such as anime and manga. “The penetration of youth culture is expanding throughout the world,” says Munezai Yo of Kai Japanese Language School in Tokyo. “Thanks to the spread of watching anime, anime songs and manga, not only on TV but also the Internet, the Japanese level of the people coming to study Japanese is becoming higher.” He continues, “It is very natural these people want to learn the Japanese language”.
Moreover, in contrast to the economic boom which previously boosted Japan’s appeal, Yo sees the cultural advance as steadier study motivation than changeable economic trends, “The cultural attractiveness can lead to a more stable stream [of students] since it is long lasting.”
Genki Japanese and Culture School (GenkiJACS) caters to fascination with traditional and modern customs, and business has been buoyant enough to expand from an original base in Fukuoka and open a new school in Tokyo (see STM, June 2013, page 10). Director Rie Kirby says, “When we started GenkiJACS, we felt existing Japanese schools didn’t meet the needs of students from Western countries. We tailored our programmes specifically to those needs, and now we’d like to take the success we’ve had with that approach to Tokyo.” The upward curve is not restricted to any particular markets, says Evan Kirby, Director of Marketing, “We haven’t noticed any specific trends, just a general overall increase.”
Konomi Sasaki, Chief Admissions Coordinator at Arc Academy, which has centres across Japan, says the country’s Cool Japan promotional strategies have paid dividends, and the school has developed a new two-week summer course filled with cultural activities as a response to growing demand. Sasaki does caution that increasing interest in culture doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to study.
Business in Japan
The Japanese language sector did suffer from the March 2011 tsunami, but after two years this is becoming less of a factor, says Yo. Indeed, Sasaki notes that general visitor numbers increased 34.6 per cent in 2012. In reality, it was the exchange rate over the last two years that probably did more damage, and schools are relieved that the yen is receding from its historically high watermark. “There has been a large upswing in demand for short-term courses in 2013. We believe this is mainly because of the cheaper yen,” asserts Kirby. Sasaki also attributes the general rise in tourism with the more favourable rate of exchange.
A dark cloud has been the high-profile diplomatic spat with China damaging enrolments from Japan’s top source market (see STM, March 2013, page 7); only the USA and Australia can boast more Chinese students than Japan, and China accounted for 62.7 per cent of international students in 2012, according to the Japan Student Services Organisation (Jasso). Both Yo and Sasaki confirm that applications from China are down, with Korea – the second market – also reduced, albeit more connected to the yen.
However, demand from other Asian nations is booming. Government student visa data for October 2012 showed around a five-fold increase in issuance to Vietnamese students, with large rises also recorded by Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Yo says Thailand and Singapore are performing strongly, with Brazil an emerging non-Asian source. Mitsuyoshi Taguchi from Tokyo-based Akamonkai Japanese Language School says, “More people are interested in learning Japanese, especially people from Southeast Asia because of expanding Japanese business.”
Indeed, business demand is the other key trend for Japanese schools, and course provision is changing to reflect this (see STM, May 2013, page 60).
Kai launched a new business Japanese course last year, says Yo, “developed to improve not only the students’ knowledge and operational skills required in the Japanese business field, but also Japanese corporate culture, rules and manners”. Similarly, Akamonkai has established a business course for students intending to work at a Japanese company, proving popular with Koreans, says Taguchi, alongside a special university preparation class. Masaki Izumi, Deputy Director at Yokohama International Education Academy (YIEA), says interest in business Japanese is definitely on the rise, with enquiries from Norway, Indonesia and the Middle East.
“Because of expanding Japanese business overseas, Japanese companies want to employ more people from overseas,” says Taguchi. The assertion is supported by annual tracking of recruitment trends by Japanese career specialist Disco Inc, which has observed yearly increases in the number of companies actively seeking foreign workers, with 48.2 per cent of organisations with more than 1,000 employees doing so in 2012.
Yo adds the government is encouraging this trend and says the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry allocated ¥5 billion (US$50million) in a supplementary budget for the foreign student share of the internship programme. As such, Kai is actively working with recruitment agencies to support language students eager to work.
Business trends are clearly a major factor in China, which despite a slight slowdown still has an accelerating growth rate Western finance ministers could only dream of. Such growth attracts potential workers and investors, with language study a natural step. Julia Zhou at E-You Mandarin Language School says, “For young foreign students, China still has more opportunities for them compared to their home countries.”
“Chinese language is becoming less necessary and more necessary at the same time,” says Jasmine Bian, CEO of Mandarin House. “These days, it is quite easy for foreigners in the major cities to get around with only a few words of Chinese. English is the language of the 21st century and the Chinese education system has placed an emphasis on this. At the same time, this increased level of English proficiency makes it more difficult for foreigners to compete in the Chinese job market.”
With huge numbers of Chinese students graduating from universities overseas there is a large pool of bilingual workers. “This means that in order for many foreigners to even get hired in China, they need to be proficient in Chinese,” says Bian. As such, Mandarin House has recently established a new school in the Hongqiao area of Shanghai, a district known for its large international population (see STM, June 2013, page 7)
Mandarin House’s development of a teacher training course also reflects the booming interest in Chinese. “With China on the rise, learning Chinese as a second language has really taken off. There have been a lot of job opportunities created for Chinese people who can teach the language effectively. Our course first takes all the aspiring teachers through the technicalities of Chinese language and language acquisition theory,” says Bian. The point is illustrated by a recently announced plan from China’s Confucius Institute for 500 centres worldwide by 2020. Mandarin House has also become a test centre for the official Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Chinese proficiency test.
Zhou says that demand has been steadily climbing, which has allowed E-You to open a new centre in Tianjin, 100km from Beijing. The key market is Europe, she adds, with more students opting for long-term courses. The school is also hoping to build on and increase its relationships with universities in Europe and the USA as well as Chinese language schools overseas.
LAL Language Centres, which operates English language schools in a number of global locations, saw the benefits in entering China, providing both English and Chinese camps. “The opportunities in China are vast and it makes complete business sense to branch out in China,” says Lesinda Leightley, Marketing Director. “It’s imperative to be a part of that growth and not join in when it’s too late.” On the decision to run Chinese courses, Leightley said, “Mandarin is one of the growing languages so we want to help people keep up with the trend, but also get to know the country itself.”
Taiwan is positioning itself as an alternative destination for language students, and has much to offer, says Mark Gruendemann at Taiwan Mandarin Institute (TMI), an “agent oriented” school in Taipei. “Taiwan is regarded as one of the safest countries to study and live in. The local Taiwanese are very friendly towards the increasing number of foreigners who choose to either study short-term here or base themselves in Taiwan.” He adds that Taiwan boasts one of the highest employment rates in the world and is a relatively low-cost option.
For many the attraction is the traditional Mandarin method taught, rather than simplified Mandarin, while the Taiwanese accent has proved effective in teaching, Gruendemann says, drawing parallels with the success and quality of English schools in Ireland as an alternative to a major neighbouring destination. Uniquely in Taiwan, TMI is dedicated to Mandarin, and he notes an increase in demand for the four-week intensive course, from which students emerge with around 350 words as the basis for further study.
The 90-day tourist landing visa for the EU, USA, Canada and Australia has been a boon, he adds. “This means that students who wish to study Mandarin will not need to make countless trips to the local embassy to acquire a visa, they will simply be granted a landing visa at the airport upon arrival provided they are a citizen from the above-mentioned countries. This has been a major factor to students choosing Taiwan over China recently.”
Indeed, visa policy could be a key factor in future growth. In Japan, Izumi says the immigration department has started giving ‘grace’ periods for visa extensions, which lifts the stress off visa renewals. He adds, “Under the new residency card system, student visa holders now have the choice of getting their part-time work permit at the time of entering Japan.” Yo relates more countries have entered into exemption agreements with Japan, notably Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Japan’s working holiday programme expands each year, says Kirby. “Compared to the inflexible and complex student visa application process, the working holiday is easy to apply for and easy to use, so we recommend it to all eligible students who want to study for longer than a tourist visa would allow.”
One drawback that schools in Asia face is that they are not benefitting from sector-specific marketing that schools in, for example, the UK and Australia do, nor the same level of accreditation. “The Japanese government only regulates long-term Japanese study as preparation for entering a Japanese university. Short-term study is completely unregulated, which means that quality differs widely, and there is no related visa programme,” says Kirby. “We would love to see the Japanese government establish a formal system for foreigners who want to study in Japan short-term, and put some of its weight behind the marketing of short-term study too.” Yo agrees, saying more language-specific marketing and accreditation policies are needed.
Agents on Asia
In terms of Asian student movement, there is some evidence that students are increasingly tempted to study internally. Xuewen E, Vice President of Beijing agency association Bossa, says according to member feedback, around five per cent of students were placed in Asian countries in 2012, principally Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. He explains that an exchange programme launched between China and the Asean group of countries has had some effect on intra-Asian study, and predicts that the ratio could steadily rise to ten per cent. However, he does note that many of these study programmes are in English.
Mark Tsu of Taiwan-based agency Envision sees a similar trend, with universities as a driving force. “Increasingly, we are seeing Taiwanese students being courted by regional programmes in Hong Kong, China, Japan and Singapore. So far, students are not having to learn a new language because the programmes that are the most aggressive in recruiting Taiwanese students are conducted in English.” Nonetheless, Japan is the third most popular destination for Taiwanese and he believes that the value proposition of affordable stays and regional vocational work opportunities will continue to encourage study in Asia.
Timpany Language Courses in Spain is seeing more demand for Chinese and Japanese, says Head of Marketing Elinor Zucchet, and she anticipates this will continue after a positive start to 2013. “Speaking Japanese or Chinese is an asset in many sectors, but most of our students have a real passion and fascination for Asian cultures and their motivation is usually more personal than professional. A good example is that after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we received fewer bookings for short-term courses, but long-term students kept enrolling and did not give up on their project.”
One agency that can certainly vouch for the growth of Asia is USA-based Language International. “Our student numbers have increased tremendously for Japanese and Chinese language programmes, says CEO, Karen Ong. She believes three factors are driving the trend: a general growth in demand for language learning; East Asia’s rising importance in the world economy; and the growing number of scholarships being offered for learning Asian languages.
“In 2013, our enrolments for learning these two Asian languages have grown by a whopping 567 per cent compared to 2012. Based on the trends we’re seeing, we expect demand for these programmes to further increase, especially as we head into the peak summer season,” says Ong.
Enriching the tourist experience: Thailand and Vietnam
Thailand and Vietnam, two countries that draw large numbers of Western tourists, are increasingly tapping into this interest with language courses. Becky Taylor at Patong Language School says, “Thailand is an exotic country and a popular destination for tourists. Learning Thai lets you appreciate this rich, beautiful culture in a way the average tourists can never imagine. It gives you the freedom to explore and communicate with the locals, which is especially useful if you want to get off the beaten track.” She adds, “Not only that but living expenses in Thailand are very affordable! Our school location is superb just a couple of minutes’ walk from the white sands of Patong Beach.” The school, which works with agents worldwide, usually has a split of students from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, with Russia recently increasing, says Taylor. Courses of up to three months are usually covered by a tourist visa, and the school can assist with longer study visas.
The USA is the major source of students for Vietnamese Language Studies (VLS) says Happi Nguyen, Relationship Executive, along with the UK, Singapore and Australia. VLS is a school that offers core language programmes and specialised courses on Vietnamese culture, history, literature and law. There has also been an increase in demand for the school’s online courses, says Nguyen.
“Vietnamese nowadays is more popular to learn for foreigners who live, work and travel in Vietnam, as only Vietnamese is spoken outside the tourist area,” says Thao Nguyen, CEO of Vietnamese Language Garden. “These days, the Vietnamese government has opened the economy, which allows and attracts foreigners to come here for work and living. Learning the language has become more popular and a trend for foreigners here,” she explains, adding Europe and North America are the main markets. Based in Ho Chi Minh, the school focuses on one-to-one learning, and has special short programmes dedicated to travellers, as well as opportunities for activities and volunteer work. Both schools are open to working with agents.
Asian study on the media agenda
Study in Asia, and China in particular, is benefitting from high-profile, government-backed initiatives and media campaigns. The 100,000 Strong Foundation has been established to strengthen USA-China relations through study abroad, building on President Obama’s policy of seeing 100,000 students in China by 2015 and addressing the imbalance of study abroad between the two nations. Musician will.i.am is among the celebrities to support the campaign, which Jasmine Bian, CEO of Mandarin House, says has had a positive impact. “The bridge across the Pacific Ocean is becoming wider and smoother by the day.” Karen Ong of American agency Language International believes it has contributed to overall interest. “While public initiatives such as this do not impact us directly, these campaigns help raise awareness and subsequently demand for learning Asian languages.”
Australia, meanwhile, has given government-level recognition of the region’s growing importance with its Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. An AUS$37 million (US$37million) AsiaBound initiative providing grants for study abroad in Asia, including language study, has already commenced. “The next generation of Australian leaders will need to be increasingly Asian-literate and these are skills best learnt by experiencing Asia first-hand”,said Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans at the launch.