Firm eager to meet nation's steady demand for English

Updated: 2011-12-08 11:13

By Wang Hongyi (China Daily)

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SHANGHAI - When Shanghai schools reopened for a new season in September, 30 government officials were among the students preparing to take courses.

Firm eager to meet nation's steady demand for English

Government agencies and State-owned enterprises, increasingly aware of the importance of the English language, are enrolling officials and employees in English training programs.[Photo/Provided to China Daily] 

The officials, most of them either deputy district or deputy bureau chiefs, were at the school honing their English in pursuit of Shanghai's goal of becoming an international financial hub.

Paul Blackstone, the chief executive of Wall Street English China, which provides training in English, said he sees nothing unusual in the officials' interest in the language. He said he has seen many changes in the Chinese demand for English training in the past decade.

The language has lost none of its importance during that time. The characteristics of those who are learning it, though, have become more diverse, said Blackstone, who manages more than 55 Wall Street English centers in Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Nanjing.

"Ten years ago, most of our students were young business professionals with career needs being the most motivating factor for wanting to improve their English skills, as they used English to conduct trade, to engage in business negotiations, to communicate specialist knowledge to trade partners, to sign contracts and so on," he said. "Learning English was basically limited to the demands of a relatively small group of people whose job directly required English skills.

"But nowadays everyone has realized that having a high level of English communication skills not only enhances career prospects but is also a sound investment in life. Also, different levels of the Chinese governments and State-owned enterprises are now becoming aware of the importance of the English learning and its role in facilitating trade and relationships. They are allocating a budget for their employees to attend English training programs and also equipping them with English skills."

The UK-based Wall Street English has built training relationships with the Ministry of Education, the National Development and Reform Commission, the hugely successful 2010 Shanghai Expo - which brought together cultural exhibits from around the world - and many other important government and regulatory bodies in China.

Blackstone said his early experiences in China left indelible impressions on him.

"I first came to China in 2002 after working with (Wall Street English) around the world," he said. "From the moment I arrived I was struck with how determined our Chinese students were to learn English. They applied themselves to their studies in a much more serious manner than other nationalities I have seen."

Blackstone decided to make his stay in China a long one, in part because of the wonderful experiences he had but also because of the many enthusiastic English students whom he met.

"My personal plan was to come to China only for a few years," he said. "But, like many foreigners, we quickly develop a fascination with the people, the energy and culture of China."

Blackstone said a Chinese person trying to learn English will encounter the same difficulties that anyone trying to learn a foreign language anywhere in the world will.

"You cannot teach a language the same way you teach science or mathematics," he said. "Language is about people communicating with each other and it is not about memorizing grammar structures and vocabulary.

"Many Chinese students here know some grammar and some vocabulary but they are not able to use their knowledge to communicate effectively. When we first learnt our native language, our parents did not teach us grammar rules. They spoke and we copied, and, over time, our language skills developed more complexity. This is the key to language learning, to listen and speak as much as possible. So we insist on such a natural approach to language learning."

Wall Street English uses multimedia, student manuals, small classes taught by foreign teachers and a variety of other methods to teach the language.

"We have found that the Chinese market is leading the world in terms of providing services to students," he said. "Our students are rapid adopters of technology whether it is the Internet, social media, smartphones or digital devices such as tablets. This has meant that we can develop learning content and services for these channels in such a way that our English training courses are more accessible and convenient for students."

Many companies are now competing with each other to offer language instruction in China, and those who want to learn English can choose from among a variety of training providers, both international and domestic.

"Chinese consumers have rising expectations in terms of value for money, customer service and effectiveness of the course they undertake or product they purchase," he said. "This requires all companies to be constantly investing in new products and services and improving staff member and customer interactions.

"The only way to be successful in this market is to focus solely on the quality of the service you provide to your students," said Blackstone, adding that Wall Street English has a long-term plan for the development of its business in China.

The company wants each of its centers to be independent, not a franchise. That, he said, will help to ensure that quality of the instruction they offer remains high.