Insatiable thirst for English boosts language schools

You have probably come across a goofy rabbit waving a flag, a grim-faced businessman looking upward into the sky, or a smiling trio comprising a Japanese and two foreigners giving the thumbs up.

The advertisements are different but the goals are the same. These people — and the flag-waving rabbit — are all part of massive ad campaigns launched by companies battling for their slice of the 670 billion yen foreign-language education industry, which is prospering thanks to the nation’s insatiable desire to learn English.

The industry, more than 90 percent of which is geared toward English-language learning, has grown steadily since 1998, when the labor ministry began subsidizing vocational and language school tuition fees for Japanese with work experience.

Of the estimated 670 billion yen in sales for 2002, up 80 billion yen from 1998, the Big Five — NOVA Co., GEOS Corp., AEON Corp. ECC Co. and Berlitz — took up more than 25 percent of the market, according to the Yano Research Institute.

The figure includes not only the schools’ tuition fees, but also textbook sales and revenue from courses taught at cultural centers and college extension faculties.

Services for kids are also in high demand, as a growing number of parents rush their preschool children into English classes, so they will be ahead of their peers when they begin formal English education in junior high school, said Yano researcher Katsuhiko Matsushima.

But unless they are forced to communicate in English in real-life situations, students might not be getting value for their money.

Tsuneto Onozawa, 29, is one student who must use English nearly every day.

An employee at Nomura Securities Co., Onozawa is in regular contact with his British colleagues in London.

But because he cannot make out what they say on the phone and is not able to adequately convey his thoughts in English, he often resorts to e-mail — sending out at least 50 messages a day.

He now takes weekly lessons at a GEOS school in Tokyo.

“I can work much more efficiently if I can communicate with them directly on the phone,” he said.

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