The future of language learning in Asia: Inside your mobile phone

The future of language learning in Asia: Inside your mobile phone
Source: Shutterstock.

Language learning in Asia is changing. Stuck with a lack of sufficient English teachers across the continent, students are now able to learn the language – vital to success in the modern business world – through a mobile phone. 

A pairing of in-class lessons and consistent daily practice online could help students master the English language.

In Thailand, for example, schools are all too often short of language teachers who are fluent in English and students are seldom practising the language every day – or at least not effectively. A survey conducted a few years ago showed that, of Thailand’s 43,000 English language teachers, just six were fluent.

As a result, parents are forced to enrol children in private tuition classes if they wish them to learn English at a high standard.

Outside of class, the language learning industry in Asia is largely built on a once-a-week system. Source:

Frustrated with the state of language learning in Thailand and Asia on the whole, mobile language learning company Qooco was set up in 2010.

Driven by a passion to educate Asia’s youth in the English language in a new way, Qooco is an online learning portal through which students benefit from consistent daily lessons and games in language acquisition. Operating in schools across Asia, the platform allows students to regularly add to their classroom learning.

Now, Qooco aids the learning of Mandarin, too, so its students can learn the two most important languages in the business world.

Students must practise daily

In Thailand, despite the government increasing the number of hours students spend in class (from one to five), due to insufficient teaching parents still enrol children in tuition outside of school. But this is only allowing them in-depth practice once a week – commonly on a Saturday.

And it is the same in the majority of countries across Asia, Qooco CEO David Topolewski explained.

Outside of class, the language learning industry in Asia is largely built on a once-a-week system where students attend tuition classes on weekends. “To me, that is the single biggest hurdle that people have to get over now,” Topolewski told Study International. 

But change is on the horizon: in some countries, such as China, teachers are now giving lessons three or four times a week, which is “a big improvement” from the once-a-week system.

“After talking with a lot of people doing research, [failure in English language] really comes down to inadequate practice, particularly a low-frequency of practice, typically weekly and nothing in between and very little good time reactional feedback,” Topolewski said.

The convenience of online learning means “you can practice anytime anywhere. It just makes everything so much easier.”

Mixing traditional with modern

But Topolewski doesn’t envisage that all learning will turn to mobile phones. Instead, he believes technology will be used to enhance learning rather than take it over.

“I think it’s going to be a hybrid model and I think it’ll also vary by age as well,” he said.

Topolewski told Study International as students get older, a greater percentage of them learn online.

However, for younger children, he acknowledges the importance of socialising, group work and having somebody monitoring them, something only a teacher and classroom full of peers can adequately provide.

“I think there are roles for that kind of collaborative stuff online,” Topolewski explained, referring to the hybrid model where traditional learning is mixed with online learning.

Some learning “may end up in virtual settings where students are online, but you’re still going to have a sense where you’re in a community and I think that’s really important”.

“It is going to be an interesting mix, a balance,” he said.

Other Asian countries are behind China

Based in Vietnam, Topolewski noted the country is around three to four years behind China. In Vietnam, parents often have smartphones but are reluctant to turn them over to their children to enable them to practice language skills.

“We saw the exact same thing three or four years ago in China, but now parents are quite happy to get another phone or put an iPad in front of a three-year-old and let them learn,” Topolewski told Study International.

“We fully expect that same type of mindset shift will happen in Vietnam.

“I don’t know if it will take three or four years, it might happen in two years, but it will happen,” he said.

Topolewski said Vietnamese students are incredibly diligent so the motivation is there, yet the country needs to catch up with China and recognise how language learning should operate – every single day.

You only have to look at Japan, Topolewski explained, which is the longest-running market – spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – “yet there’s no measurable improvement whatsoever because they just keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over and over again”.

And it is the same in many countries across Asia. In Korea for example, despite spending more capital on the English language than any other country in the continent, it is seeing little improvement because students are not practising daily.

“That is what it comes down to,” Topolewski said, “practice every single day.”

Why is online learning so appealing?

“I think [mobile learning] is really becoming the go-to,” Topolewski said.

He claimed there are many reasons online learning is such an appealing concept. For one, “the accessibility is very big,” he said. Secondly, “the gamification – that’s instant,” Topolewski explained referring to the taking of methods commonly found in games and applying them to learning. “We use gamification quite extensively to make language learning really engaging and fun.

“So, our goal is to make it more fun than any homework they’re doing so that they’ll be drawn to do that.”

Additionally, students are able to get immediate feedback and data on how they are doing. Topolewski claimed many parents worry whether their children are learning effectively. “So, we watch this very closely and monitor it, and we can deliver on that,” he said.

For the schools, the cost comes into it.

Traditional learning methods don’t have this data, “and if schools try to introduce it, it just jacks up the costs from anywhere from three to six times and as a result, they can’t do it, because language learning is already expensive traditionally”.

“With the cost savings you’ll ultimately be able to put better people where you need them and more personalisation because you’ll have that data,” Topolewski said. “So, I think it’s a very complementary model.”

What’s next for language learning in Asia?

“I think there’s going to be some exciting things around augmented reality and virtual reality. It’s likely to be a few years away,” Topolewski told Study International.

Online learning can provide more assistance to teachers and alleviate some of the pressure and time constraints they feel, helping them do a better job in class.

“We’re going to have so much data,” Topolewski explained. “We’re going to be able to analyse where students are at with their learning.”

Ultimately, he claimed, Qooco will be able to anticipate where students may encounter problems and be able to proactively address those before they develop.

“If we are able to do that it will drive student engagement,” he said.

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