How Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse are explaining the intricacies of English

09:07, August 16, 2010      

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Thomas, a four-year-old Chinese boy, was sitting on the carpet next to his parents. In front of him, a young blonde woman bearing a strong resemblance to US actress Drew Barrymore leant towards the child with a toy cat in her left hand and asked in English: "Thomas, how can we feed the hungry cat?"

Seeing a toy fish on the ground, Thomas said in English: "fish".

The teacher said: "Give me a high five". The parents smiled indulgently.

This was a demo class at the Disney English center for children aged between two and 12 in Beijing, where teaching methods emphasize interaction with children based on their interests including color, music and movies.

Disney has opened 14 centers in the country with 10 in Shanghai and four in Beijing. The company is opening three more in the coming two or three months, including one in Suzhou in October.

"We have plans to double that within the next year. We are also understanding the demand beyond Shanghai and Beijing," said Andrew Sugerman, senior vice-president and general manager of Disney English, in an interview with China Daily.

Disney, which has identified Shanghai as the location for its next theme park, is also the first Western media company to operate schools in China. It is now eagerly developing products derived from its media business in the country.

Sugerman said: "We really focus on China. Right now it is all about China. Not about any other (country)."

The children's English learning market in China currently represents $2.1 billion in consumer spending, excluding additional public expenditure, he said.

In China, Disney owns and operates the centers with a focus on standards. "We don't do franchises," said Sugerman. "It is so important that a parent can expect a certain level of quality and results when they come to see us."

Disney English's annual lessons can cost up to 12,000 yuan ($1,770) for 96 hours of classes over a year.

"It is a good business. The opportunity in China is so large. We believe that we can continue to expand as demand continues to expand," he said.

Demand is certainly gaining momentum. Chinese parents are increasingly concerned about the English-speaking capability of their children to enable them to compete in the world. The increase in the numbers of Chinese middle class has created a great opportunity for top-end English teaching products, said Liu Jun, professor and head of the English department at the University of Arizona.

The market will keep expanding its territory to second- or third-tier cities, and even further into villages, thanks to a constant migration of the population that increases people's awareness of linguistic needs.

As the market grows, the company is likely to face fierce competition from other rapidly growing numbers of supplementary English courses, from companies such as Riverdeep Immersion Subject English (RISE) Learning Centers and Pop Kids Education, operated by New Oriental School.

Statistics show the country has at least 30,000 English educational institutions for children - a market that is increasing 12 percent annually. In 2009 Pop Kids trained nearly 500,000 children, gaining revenues of 400 million yuan, according to the company.

RISE Learning Centers trained 40,000 children aged between four and 12 last year. Its over 100 centers in more than 50 cities have targeted middle- and high-end families, said the company's CEO Xia Yufeng. The business is good after three years of development, he said.

Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are familiar to children and their parents as two of the first Western cartoon characters introduced to the country. Now these characters help engage their young learners with a child-friendly teaching environment that will enhance their imagination, confidence and creativity.

"Many children who do not talk to people other than their parents or who do not like to learn English have found their interest growing here," said Leona Zhao, an assistant trainer at Disney English.

"For children, it is all about whether they enjoy what they do. Disney English inspires their interests in English by making the study a fun journey," said Zhao.

Each class has two academic staff, a native and bilingual assistant trainer. Those employed from the US all have Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificates and a qualification in teaching children in the US. There are 12 to 15 people in each lesson, which lasts about two hours. Classes use a curriculum assembled by teaching professionals from the US, Europe and China.

"The program is not a Western program but rather a global program that gives children a chance to combine what they know locally with the opportunity to see things globally," said Sugerman.

After China, the company intends to explore other emerging education markets, with modified curricula to meet the need of the young learners in each country.

For example, in China, the company created a vocabulary that meets and matches the reality of China in its unique types of food and family structures to makes sure words are applicable in everyday life.

Source:China Daily


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