Choosing a Language School is like Picking a Flavour at the Ice Cream Parlour: It is at One’s Own Peril!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I always had the feeling there were more language schools per capita in Ottawa alone than in both Montréal and Toronto combined. Of course, I had nothing to support it… therefore, last week, I spent a few minutes researching… Indeed, I was right! With a population of about 750,000 Ottawa has 12 language schools per 100,000 compared to Toronto (close to 5 millions) with 2 schools per 100,000 and Montréal (close to 3.5 millions) with 4 schools per 100,000. Edmonton (which population is about 860,000 – similar to Ottawa’s) has 4 language schools per 100,000.

On top of the 80 something private language schools listed in Canada 411, there are the schools ran by the government and people like myself who provide the same services, but are not considered as “schools”… I am pretty sure no city in the world has so many language vendors! But, the beauty of it is that they all have enough business to stay alive (thanks to the Public Service Commission’s policies on official languages!)… well… sometimes, a couple do not make it… then, they re-open under another name.

Since I am someone who likes to know what the competition is, I occasionally offer my services as a consultant with those schools… there is nothing like seeing things from inside! And… it gives me solid grounds to promote my business, emphasizing on what I do and what they do not do!!!

They all are more or less the same… Even if some are better than others, in my book, none of them meets the standards of the industry (corporate second language training). This is probably why they do not flirt with the private sector (that requires customized programs, tailored to meet its specific needs), although there is quite a potential with all the high-tech companies established in the Kanata area.

Their websites are generic, promoting the neighbourhood and the parking spaces available rather than their programs! It seems more important to have a refrigerator in each individual classroom, a spacious kitchen with a couple of microwave ovens, a cosy lounge room with phones and a fitness center or biking trails nearby than quality training services…

Civil servants who have to find a school for their one-on-one training usually choose one based upon the environment, assuming the program is the same everywhere… FALSE! There are no specific programs… most of the time, teachers (hired as cheap labor and only required to speak French and have a university degree – no matter the field) are left on their own: no prior training, no method, no program and little guidance! They use whatever they can find as pedagogical materials and they make tons of photocopies! À la plus grande joie des fournisseurs tels que Xerox et Canon! It does not take long before trainees are down in the dumps…

Have you ever been to one of those Ice Cream Parlours where they offer more than 50 different flavours? I did! I have to admit my guilty pleasure, between June and September, is eating ice cream every single day (Thank God, I do not have to watch either my waistline or my cholesterol rate!)… There is always an endless waiting line because people just cannot make up their minds! Once or twice, I went for something based upon the look of the product… but, I ended up disappointed (if not truly disgusted): it tasted anything but ice cream! Consequently I always opt for plain vanilla… because, bottom line, what I want is ICE CREAM, not some chemical product with no taste… This is why I prefer having ice cream at home with my favourite topping (raspberries or blackberries with a soupçon of chocolate syrup and pecans! Nirvana!): I then taste everything…

I see language schools as those ice cream flavours… a blend of anything, without what people are really looking for… As a provider of the same services, I do only offer vanilla flavour (which is the core) then I add up whatever topping depending on my students’ individual needs and learning styles. With me, there are no frills (and no fridges!)… only French! Because what really matters are the results… And all my students will state that their experience with me was/is positive, enjoyable and painless (hmmm… a bit painful at times, but no permanent scars that would show in court!)!

Would it be that difficult for language schools to work more on the “content” of their curriculum and less on the “container”?

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

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2 Comments

  1. greeneyes27 said,

    July 18, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I completely agree with you that there are many options on the market and in time the quality went down considerably. I do not have that much experienced with language schools subsidized by the government but I followed something similar in Brussels and I was happy. Why? Because at the end of the class I could just go to the teacher and ask questions and he/she was happy to take the time to explain me or give me more work to do.

    With private schools time is money. It seems that “per hour” is the paramount expression. In my opinion- I do not think this is current practice in Brussels- you should be able to “try before you buy”- have one hour with the teacher and then be able to make up your mind.

    At the end of the day I see language as a small part of the culture and therefore the difficulty which comes with it – fitting everyone, common understanding, right tools, etc. I am not trying to take sides but I think you will agree that what is happening today everywhere is pushed to the extreme. Time and money is the priority and quality and content, as you said, is not!

  2. July 18, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Greeneyes27,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Unfortunately, it seems money is the main driver today… consequently, content and quality become secondary.

    Although I run a very small business and work solo, I do very well precisely because I offer what the large languages schools do not give: quality, professionalism, content and attention. I always meet with my clients for 90 minutes (serious assessment) prior to the beginning of their training with me. It gives them the opportunity to connect with me and actually see who they will be spending quite some time with. At the same time, if they have any questions or issues, I can give them straight answers and discuss with them. Trust is a major factor in training!

    Learning French is not easy and this is why I engage my students in creative activities in which they can use their life experience. it is also important for me that they learn about the French culture as well… because language and culture go together. And, I must admit I am successful at what I do. I am also the kind of person who can easily stay after class and take the extra step to help my students to achieve their desired goal – as long as they are!


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