Are There Too Many English Centres in HCMC?

Education - Saigon/HCMC: March 2, 2018

Are there too many English schools in Saigon?

For those who’ve studied learner preferences, the research seems to point to market saturation.

“I would say that we have too many English centres in Saigon,” Tuan Pham, Research Director at market research firm Asia Plus, wrote in an email interview.

The Most Effective Way to Learn?

Asia Plus’s market research company Q&Me conducted a study in 2015 on English learners in Ho Chi Minh City titled English study practices in Vietnam: Usage of online for the efficient and affordable study. While the research doesn’t deal directly with the question of whether Saigon has reached saturation for English centres, it contains a novel insight into how local Vietnamese are learning the language: it shows classroom instruction is not the most popular or effective way to learn the language.

Exactly half of the 403 students polled in Q&Me’s research preferred to learn English over a smartphone application. Less than a third, 29 percent, of learners preferred to learn English through a language school, an option that polled slightly less popular than online lessons, YouTube and books.

Q&Me’s researchers determined that communicating directly with someone in English was the best way to acquire the language, but only 10 percent of respondents chose that as their preferred way to learn English.

Video source: Duolingo

Curiously, improving speaking was reported as the number one goal, not something you can do on DuoLingo or a similar app as preferred by the students polled. Pham said that beginning students, who tend to rely on apps more, are overrepresented in the study. More experienced learners have “come to understand direction communication is a must, and they’ve pinpointed speaking [as] their most desired skill,” he said.

“Apps...have [proven] to produce low performance and have been dropped by experienced learners.”

But that doesn’t make English schools an obvious choice for learners. Pham said the demand for native English speakers has engendered an environment where schools are proliferating unnecessarily. “The quality of most centres [is] not that good,” he said plainly.

Branching Out

It’s for this reason that language service English Star’s founder Son Le sits in on his teacher’s first lessons.

“Sometimes, I learn together with the students,” he said. “I like to see how teachers teach my students, and I can see if a teacher is good or not good.”

Le started English Star in October. His organisation—a network of travelling teachers who meet students rather than a physical school—has five foreign teachers who teach 40 students throughout the city.

The question of whether there are too many English centres in Saigon is in some ways irrelevant to Le: he started English Star with the intention of building expertise and staff to start a school in Can Gio District, the southernmost area of Ho Chi Minh City, where Le was raised.

“My dream is I want to have school [sic] in Can Gio District,” he said. “I want students there meet foreigner [sic].”

Le himself is an autodidact in English. He used newspapers and, yes, smartphone apps to learn the language. He said Google Translate has been a game changer for him as an English learner.

It’s been his experience that students have to take it upon themselves to learn the language, that their effort plays as much if not more of a role in determining their success in the language. Le said a lack of student initiative can undermine even a great teacher or lesson.

An ineffective English school is just a revenue-making machine. English courses are a not insignificant part of a Saigonese’s budget. Le said he tried to price his services with that in mind. A teacher from English Star can be rented at a flat rate of VND500,000 per hour regardless of class size.

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Le said an average student or student group pays around VND2 million per month for his language services. Le estimated a student would pay at least double this rate at a competing English centre.

Le could conceivably raise his prices with little impact on his business. According to Q&Me’s research, cost was not among the top concerns for the English learners surveyed.

Getting Conversational

Curriculum variety and reputation were the third and second most popular choices for respondents when asked what the most important element in choosing a school was.

The number one consideration was the availability of native speakers.

Because speaking was ranked as English learners’ most desired ability, “this is where the demand for…native English teachers comes from,” Pham said.

“In order to pursue higher education or to earn better paid jobs they've come to understand direct communication is a must, and they've pinpointed speaking to be the most desired skill,” he said.

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Q&Me’s research was conducted in 2015, but Pham said he expected the students’ preferences and study habits to be generally the same now. Indeed, Nguyen Minh Tri, a Saigon University student, groused to Tuoi Tre about his school’s lack of opportunities to practise conversation. “Two English lessons per week and too many students in a class do not allow us to practise,” he told the newspaper.

Tri’s comments appeared in coverage related to the country’s risk of falling short of getting all graduating students to a CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) B1 level. Teachers who have to help bring this standard to fruition have said it’s not feasible.

The teachers’ protestations underscore how critical English is in the professional life of a Vietnamese worker. “English is now considered a must-have skill for every [student] and office worker in big cities,” Pham said.

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