Monday, November 04, 2002

English has truly become the world language, in case you somehow missed it. Here in Spain, it's become almost a necessity. My wife, Remei, is an assiduous reader of the Sunday help-wanted ads in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia. She calculates that about 40% of all job ads and 70% of white-collar job ads require English, and that the jobs that require English usually are better-paid than those that don't. Her only outstanding job skill, besides her general competence at office work, is her excellent command of spoken English. Remei says that if she wanted to, she could find a relatively lousy new job instantly and a relatively good new job after some time looking, owing exclusively to her English. This is while, don't forget, the Spanish economy is going through a slowdown--not a recession, but a fall in the rate of growth--that's made work a bit harder to get than it was a couple of years ago.

Many Spaniards seem to agree with Remei that knowing English really is a rung up the ladder in the job market. La Vanguardia says that there are 900,000 students of English in Spain, and this does not include elementary and high school students. There are 3500 English schools which employ 20,000 people in Spain, and the Spanish demand for English employs many more people in Britain and in other English-speaking countries in the form of summer classes, textbooks, videos, and the like. (The US, curiously, doesn't much compete in the international English-teaching racket; American English-as-a-second-language materials tend to be directed at domestic use with often poorly-educated immigrants, very different from the British English-as-a-foreign-language books and software aimed at fairly literate and cultured Continental Europeans.) All totaled, the English-teaching business in Spain grosses €600 million a year, which is a healthy pile of money.

So why, you ask, don't the Spaniards just learn English and get it over with? The problem is that learning English is seen in Spain as a New Year's resolution sort of thing, rather like losing weight, getting in shape, or learning the piano. That's because learning English is hard for Spaniards. It's difficult and time-consuming. The American Institute in Barcelona, a non-profit organization which has been in operation for 50 years, figures that it takes an average Spaniard about 500 class hours to reach the English skill level necessary to pass the Cambridge First Certificate exam, a diploma commonly accepted in Europe that certifies that one indeed does know English reasonably well, sufficient for most work purposes. Regular English classes are normally held twice a week for an hour and a half. If you attend class three hours a week for forty weeks a year, you'll take about five years to reach First Certificate level--and this figure does not include the hundreds of out-of class hours reading, watching movies or TV, surfing the Net, or just chatting that a learner needs to do on his own.

Now you're saying "Five years?! Five freakin' years?" Yep, that's how long it takes. Learning a language is not just a question of sitting down and studying it and then regurgitating it on the test; it takes active practice time. You have to practice speaking and listening to and reading and writing English until you get good at it, just like the piano or cooking or driving a car or anything else. And it helps you a great deal if you have a competent teacher to assist you in learning, but there's no magic formula. No silver bullet. No way a teacher can unscrew your head and pour English in. But that doesn't mean there aren't people out there trying to sell you the idea that they can.

We suppose that the definition of fraud is making promises about what you're selling that aren't true. Over the last fifteen or twenty years in Spain, ever since the Spaniards realized that they'd better learn English, a whole different category of businesses has started up. Traditionally in Barcelona, English classes have been held at the Escuela Nacional de Idiomas, a government-subsidized institution; the British Council, run by the British government; the American Institute, run as a non-profit by an independent board; and neighborhood "language academies", run by individuals, who specialize in personal treatment and attention and run the gamut between very good and plain awful. But since people began to wake up to the fact that they needed English in the mid-80s, the sharp operators jumped on board.

First came two competing chains, Wall Street Institute, now controlled by the American company Sylvan, and Opening School, owned by the old-line distance-courses company, CEAC. What these guys did is advertise a "totally new method" of learning English painlessly and with no work or struggle. All you had to do is come into a Wall Street or Opening branch, spend a few hours a week there, plug into a computer or listen to audiocassettes, and you'd teach yourself English. The scheme was a little more complicated than this, but that was more or less it. They put up a big advertising blitz promising people the moon, linguistically, and convinced a lot of people (also using techniques like cold-calling, and always, always, the hard sell) who didn't know much about language and how it is learned but were desperate to learn English. Meanwhile, they sold franchises to people who didn't know anything about language either, but were willing to kick in the cash to buy the Wall Street or Opening system, including the computer and electronic setups. So you had ignorant franchisees running "education centers", which were basically language labs, selling English to ignorant customers who bought the hard-sell. Meanwhile, very little English was getting learned by anybody in these places, but after about 1995 they became almost ubiquitous. Both Wall Street and Opening opened a couple of dozen franchises in the Barcelona metropolitan area; seeing one was as common as seeing a McDonalds.

By about 1998 or so it was starting to become clear that these franchised systems were not getting the job done. Letters from disappointed customers became common in the newspapers and very negative gossip began going around the Barcelona English-speaking community, much of which depends on the English-teaching sector for its livelihood. Also, Opening and Wall Street used the typical health-club sales scam, getting the customer to sign up for a year at a time at prices approaching $2000 and paying in advance, while the company knew the whole time that most students would drop out fairly quickly when they got tired of typing stuff at a keyboard and listening to audiocassettes and not even frequently receiving help from an authentic native speaker, much less an authentic English teacher. The two chains advertised a money-back guarantee with so many escape clauses in it that it wasn't worth anything, and a lot of people became very irritated at not getting their money back when they tried to.

By about 2000 the bottom was beginning to drop out of the market for Wall Street and Opening; you started to see shuttered-up franchises and fewer TV advertisements, then none at all. At exactly this time, Brighton, a chain of traditional English activities with a very poor reputation for hiring unqualified teachers, sometimes illegally (i.e. by reporting one salary to the government for tax purposes and really paying a different one; this is politely known in Spain as tax fraud) and then not paying them on time or at all, jumped into the market with both feet. Its flamboyant owner, an Argentinian wheeler-dealer whose name is Alfredo Ibáñez Nicolás but who uses the slightly improved Alfred Ibañez de Nicolás, opened up several more outlets to the chain. Rumor has it that Ibáñez leads a very expensive lifestyle that includes the consumption of large quantities of cocaine.

Ibáñez started running full-page advertisements in the Vanguardia every day advertising something called the B.T.S., also known as the Brighton Total System. This consisted of having normal (but generally lousy) traditional-style English classes and access for customers to an extremely ratty room with a few computers, a VCR, and a boom box. Brighton did the same thing as Wall Street and Opening but with a lower budget; no TV ads but lots of direct-marketing hard-sell phone calling. About this time all three chains figured something out: that there would be real money if you made it possible for potential customers to finance their English "studies". Students would take out bank loans for the amount of the course and the bank would directly pay the school in full. The bank would then be in charge of collecting the loan, which the student didn't normally know he'd gotten into because the contracts they signed had an awful lot of fine print, big words, and confusing clauses.

In 2002 the chains began to crack up. In August, Opening announced that it was closing permanently after a couple of months of irregular operation during which several franchisees closed down and others began opening only for limited hours. Then it all hit the fan when customers began to ask about getting their money back. Uh, they weren't going to get their money back, and not only that, they had to pay off their bank loan whether or not they were getting any English out of it. Opening didn't have any money to give back, or at least they said they didn't, and the banks certainly weren't about to become angels of charity. Brighton went down at the end of October under much more spectacular circumstances; their teachers went on strike after not having been paid since May. Ibáñez, apparently coked up, called a staff meeting in which he vehemently promised that everybody would be paid. He then proceeded to disappear with the main computer's hard disk and files and the company's books, not to mention whatever cash was lying around; the staff at the main office, when telephoned by a Vanguardia reporter to see what was going on, replied, "Ibáñez has run off with the money." Some 5000 customers in the Barcelona area have been affected by the Brighton collapse alone. Most of them are out fairly substantial sums of cash, at least several hundred bucks and usually more. They're suing. The banks want their money back. Best of luck.

Wall Street, meanwhile, is still plugging away, though they admit losing almost a third of their students in the past twelve months; they officially announced that they were down to about 50,000 all over Spain, from the 72,000 they claimed last year. Such a messy, undignified end as those of Opening and Brighton seems unlikely for Wall Street, as they're backed by Sylvan, but Wall Street is in trouble too. They had 167 branches in October of last year and they're down to 126 as of now.

Meanwhile, the American Institute, now in its fifty-second year, is seeing an enrollment increase. Now, if you'll please excuse me, I have to go teach an English class.

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