Having worked closely alongside ELT publishers for over 25 years, here at emc design we are fascinated by the rise in English language learning materials being created for the region. In this piece, Anna Cunnane, from bookmachine, explores the reasons for the boom.

China’s extraordinary economic rise has the country in the grip of what has been described as a ‘mania’ for learning English. The number of people studying English as a second language in China has more than doubled since 2013. Now some analysts are predicting a rise of 12-15% in the value of the English training market over the next few years.

The expanding Chinese market for ELT publications is driven by four major factors:

  • Economic liberalisation has transformed this once largely agrarian society into the world’s second biggest economy. Opening to global markets creates an incentive to learn English – the world’s lingua franca.
  • The urbanisation of Chinese society has created a middle class with purchasing power and a demand for Western learning. The cultural legacy from British Imperialism means that the curriculum is seen as Gold Standard by Chinese parents.
  • In January 2016 China’s one child policy was lifted when the government announced that 91 million couples would have permission to have two children. Expect classrooms to swell over the next 5 years.
  • Proficiency in English is vital to the educational and social advancement of millions of Chinese students via The National University Exam. Every year millions of teenagers sit the test in Chinese, Maths and English that is a gateway to the best universities and jobs.

The number of private language schools has exploded to keep up with this insatiable demand. According to Yale Global in Beijing alone, about 200,000 people take English classes outside the school system. Competition to get into the top state schools is fierce with parents spending an increasing proportion of their income on outside lessons. In 2018 the after school education market was estimated to be worth 800 billion yuan (£90 billion) a year. One of the largest providers in this area EF English First has over 300 schools across 60 cities in China with ‘kids & teens schools, adult centers and an online facility’. International schools are setting up new branches in Chinese cities offering a Western based education in English and Mandarin. Some of Britain’s most elite education brands like Harrow and Dulwich College are exporting a hybrid education model that blends the Chinese curriculum with English instruction and teaching methods.

English has been a compulsory part of the curriculum in Chinese schools since 2003 and is required from Primary 3 (ages 8-9). In major cities however some Chinese children are taught at preschool (from 2 years old) meaning that they are learning English before they can speak Mandarin. This ever-decreasing age for children to begin learning English is thought to be due to a fixation among parents to give their child an early advantage in the country’s competitive education system. Disney English (a subsidiary of Disney Publishing Worldwide) is making the most of this trend offering an ‘Immersive Storytelling Approach’ using Disney characters that caters to children aged 2-12. Parents send their young children to native English speakers who will teach them songs and games whilst doubling as convenient babysitting. There has been a shift towards ‘soft English language teaching materials’ and away from the grammar led instruction of the past. Some parents have even set up their own book clubs swapping imported children’s books to get their kids to engage with English language and culture.

In the last decade technology has radically altered the landscape of ELT in China. The market for education startups is expected to reach $104bn by 2025. The world’s biggest online education company VIPKID received a $1bn valuation in August 2017 and claims to have 70,000 teachers registered on its site (mostly based in the US) and more than 600,000 students in China. The scale, convenience and affordability of these lessons makes them more attractive than traditional schools for many Chinese parents. Several companies are racing to provide new technologies to add value to this learning experience including AI to measure students’ engagement. Platforms like these are much more in sync with the way younger customers are consuming ELT content across multiple devices.

The consumer base for ELT publications in China is changing at a bewildering speed. Thanks to cultural prestige and an established presence in the market, UK publishers have a unique advantage. Focus on growth areas in early childhood learning and on educational technology will help them to meet the needs of China’s technologically advanced and globally oriented society.

The emc design team are keen to work closely with publishing clients, as they explore the Chinese market. If you could like to discuss an upcoming project, please click here.

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