For the past few years that I have been writing this column, I have also implied that there are two different, however related, needs of the market that the average language school is serving. One is that of teaching a foreign language to the extent that the student is going to acquire it as a personal means of communication. The other is that of preparing examination candidates for personal accreditation in the usage of the foreign language. These two targets have always co-run, but still they have never been and can never be the same thing.
Using a language is not only a matter of possessing the structural elements of this communicative code. Using a foreign language is about a whole cultural awareness framework in when and how the user synthesizes these structural elements, how he/she personalizes this synthesis, how confidence is built within him/her and, eventually, how language usage confidence reflects on personalization and evolves along the evolution of the actual language.
Such a complex process can never reflect any assessment system or examination that is carried out industrially. The role of such an assessment system is to assure a minimum standard, without, though, being able to prove that performance at an examination reflects that minimum standard of language awareness, rather than just a good knowledge of the language required to pass the specific exam.
The truth is that blind dedication to any sort of accreditation in our country, for reasons that I have explained in the past, has inflated any stream serving the one of the two paths, especially that of exam preparation. There are so many available standard materials, presenting standard techniques to reach a standard exam, mainly requiring standard instructional (and not teaching) styles. For such a standard environment, how could it not be that anybody who can basically understand this environment (i.e. just any English Lit degree holder and any CPE holder) opens a language centre and runs it? You see, this is not about language teaching, but about exam preparation and coaching.
With Greece moving into the phase of maturity as a free economy, whatever market pressures and competition have been like so far, I feel real adult pressure and competition hasn’t knocked on our door yet, but is not so far from it any more either.
The Super Market concept flourished in Greece after the mid-eighties. What happened then? A change of legislation, adapting our law to European law brought major chains (remember Continent?) to our country. The concept is simple. The same consumers were customers to different kinds of retailers and suppliers. The supermarket brought all different products together into one place, thus enabling the consumer to use his/her time more effectively, find better prices due to more effective distribution and product allocation, and enjoy convenience.
In the same respect, an exam preparation product can be one of the products that will be compiled along with other products and services that are of our consumers’ interest. Think how many more subjects our students have to take on, and how many more kinds of exams (computers, panhellenic exams, etc.) a student has to prepare for. If exam preparation is so straightforward for somebody that qualifies legally, then it is only a matter of legislation to enable such “training supermarkets” to occur.
However, at a time when supermarkets in Europe have become such a “trade power” (i.e. in the UK, as mentioned before, there are 5 groups that literally run the whole market), more and more people discover the value of high quality food or goods and invest money in that quality. These consumers are determined to pay more for the benefit of the substance and specialty, rather than mass production and packaging. A young family with small children invests in organic food, high quality fabrics, and the best possible education. There are two factors to facilitate that: one is the requirement of the young family being able to afford it, while the second is that a young family has been trained / convinced about the benefit of the specialist.
An overview of what, almost definitely, is going to happen, shows the need of redefining what “real quality education” is. The need for certificates and accreditation will always be there, and nobody can query their part of basic skills assurance that is needed. However, it is also definite that if a “training supermarket” is to invest in real quality, it will not be viable. In fact, no matter whether a change in legislation allows computer schools, Greek frontisteria, IIEK, and other private training centres to teach foreign languages, their viability relies on strictly standardized programmes, first due to a lack of expertise and second due to a lack of ability to manage relevant resources.
On the other hand, the viability of private language schools relies on the substantive investment in their specialty. Serving a market in ways that obviously any other business that serves the same market can, will just increase your direct competition and decrease your market share immensely.
A code of practice and a new definition of the training required will enhance the role of a few and specific language schools. The well planned communication to the parents and students community will create a need for that, at least among those who consciously believe in the value of providing their children with “the best”.
Therefore, can you choose the right path for your future viability? It is the difficult path of professional virtue. So lucky am I to have already worked with a bunch of all those who can confidently say “I can”. Actually, they say “I have”.