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Are language centres doomed?

(note: this blog post takes into account the Brazilian context, but it is also applicable to many Latam countries and Eurasia as well).

I was having coffee with a friend and she, knowing that I work in the English language teaching market, asked me exactly this question. I had to think a bit about the answer.

The changing landscape of the language learning market

The language learning market is undergoing a transformation in Brazil. More and more regular (K12, or primary/secondary) schools are becoming bilingual, offering immersion programs and English classes from the early grades of elementary school, much earlier than what is mandatory by law. As a result, families are less and less inclined to send their children to a course just to learn English.

Of course, it is a movement that is still very disorganized (even the players that seem more established barely have ten years of existence as bilingual education providers. They may have already existed as a language school, but that is another thing), but it is undeniable that it is irreversible.

English courses (or other language courses, see Alliance Française, which even got rid of its historic headquarters in downtown São Paulo) that used to boast 2,000 or 3,000 students in a single branch have had to quickly rethink their business models.

Finally, the profile of students at traditional language schools has changed. Now, most students are young professionals looking to improve their English to increase their chances in the globalized job market or study abroad. We no longer have the average teenager who'll be around our classrooms for years to come.

Does this mean the market is over?

No, definitely not. It means the market has changed. These changes bring opportunities for schools to develop new specialized products for this new adult audience. Although this is fairly obvious, they can offer English courses focused on corporate contexts, with an emphasis on vocabulary and conversation for a business environment. Another option is test preparation programs like TOEFL, IELTS and LinguaSkill. Most already offer this type of learning experience, but if they do a bit of soul-searching they might acknowledge that these have always been entrées rather than main courses.

Historically, language centres are institutions that have always focused on children and teenagers as their blue ocean. Unlike adult students, who have a professional life, urgency (and greater decision-making autonomy) to learn and low loyalty to the institution, the range of younger students used to have very high retention (often above 95%) and very high brand loyalty. If your cousin studied at school X, you will probably go there too.

Investment in EdTech

It's impossible for me to open my Instagram feed and not find a new miraculous method for learning English, usually crazier than the other (learn English right away in the same way as the greatest polyglots in history! unlock your English!), but I prefer to ignore these providers. I can't even call them schools. No offense, but I can only respect a method of whatever that is backed by academic research.

Learning a new language in as an adult can be very challenging due to numerous factors, from reduced brain plasticity when compared to childhood to lack of time. However, artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize (and is already revolutionizing, in many cases) the learning and acquisition of a second language. Chatbot-based tools allow adults to practice conversational English with an AI that simulates dialogues that are very similar to what we would have in real life and the user receives instant feedback on pronunciation and sentence construction.

Another interesting feature is speech recognition for real-time phonetic correction during conversation. These technologies greatly accelerate the process of acquiring correct pronunciation. Adaptive applications also analyze student responses and create personalized plans, focusing on the most deficient areas. This allows each adult to learn at their own pace with AI support.

In short, there are numerous different tools (and honestly, 10 minutes of Googling "artificial intelligence tool for pronunciation" will help more than any text I can write here). The main point is that these tools can help catalyze the teacher's work, reduce costs for institutions and still offer an infinitely more personalized and meaningful English learning experience (or French, Hebrew, German...) for students.

Investment in EdTech is not a luxury. It is an absolutely essential strategy for language teaching as a business model to remain relevant. People haven't stopped taking photos (on the contrary, they do it more than ever), but printing them has ceased to be relevant and Kodak has practically gone bankrupt.

Available tools

Language schools can start adopting AI solutions, with resources already available on the market, without major investments. I was in a course last Saturday and mentioned that the best tools are often 'blank screens' that always function as a means and not an end. For example, there are automatic exercise creators, like Quizlet. The teacher defines the concepts to be practiced and the tool generates activities like fill-in-the-blanks.

For writing and grammar, advanced spell and syntax checkers like Grammarly identify errors and make correction suggestions automatically.

Another useful option are chatbots to answer student questions about course operations and content. They respond to simple questions automatically.

These technologies save teachers time on repetitive tasks and allow greater focus on communicative development.

The adult student's teacher now has more time to do what machines can't: have face-to-face meaningful interactions and provide socio-emotional support to those who are in a new learning journey

Preparing for the future

As LLMs (large language models) become accessible, language teaching can be further transformed and optimized. For this, schools should start investing in AI models specific to the educational context, with data relevant to language learning. In addition, it is essential that managers and educators receive training on how to integrate these new technologies in the classroom and in educational projects. A change in mindset is needed to see AI as an ally.

It is also vital to establish ethical guidelines for the responsible use of these tools, with human oversight and without infringing on student privacy. If well prepared, schools have a chance to exponentially enhance the quality and efficiency of language teaching with AI. But the focus will remain on developing students' critical thinking and communication skills, with the tools optimizing human learning.

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