Latest Chinese P2P apps are all talk
- English proficiency is a key differentiator in China
- However, the quality of English education in public schools is poor
- A number of P2P English apps have been launched to address this
The problem in China is that the quality of English education in public schools is poor. Students almost exclusively learn grammar in order to read and write, but spend very little time on practising speaking and listening. During my university days in the UK, I had Chinese classmates who would score very high marks in exams, but would struggle to have a basic conversation in English.
it can work out to be very expensive. Photo: iStock
In major cities such as Shanghai, the growing expat community has exploited this opportunity. Alongside their normal jobs, many expats teach English to Chinese students. A standard one-on-one English class in a casual setting such as a Starbucks would cost a Chinese student RMB 200 an hour. Likewise, if a Chinese student wants to learn a different European language, such as French or Spanish, the cost is even higher, due to the smaller number of native speakers in China.
TutorGroup launches expert On-demand service
TutorGroup is an Alibaba-backed language learning firm that runs several services, including VIPABC, which has been heavily marketed for several years in China with former NBA player Yao Ming. The company has diversified away from the standard classroom learning environment by hosting yoga and cooking classes in English. It has also recently launched a peer-to-peer (P2P) service called Expert On Demand, which allows users to connect with teachers from a relevant background.
The concept is certainly sound, and for professionals wanting to improve their job-related vocabulary, the price is cheap. However, the problem for TutorGroup is finding teachers that are willing to give lessons. I find it difficult to believe that a well-paid lawyer would be willing to give English lessons in their free time for a fee that is likely to be very small relative to their salary.
51Job takes on the big players
Typically, most technology-based industries in China are dominated by the BAT trio of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, who have an oligopolistic control over China’s smartphone adoption boom due to their financial strength.
Tencent's and New Oriental Education's English learning app uDA
51Job is a job listings website in China that has grown in popularity over the past few years, despite Western firms such as eFinancialCareers and LinkedIn entering the market. The firm has recently launched a new P2P English language-learning app that has been heavily advertised over the past few weeks, called 51Talk.
Classes range from RMB 8 to RMB 15 for a 25-minute class, which is substantially cheaper than the RMB 200 for a one-on-one class with Western expats in China. Classes can be conducted over Skype or through Tencent’s popular messaging service QQ, which means that the classes are purely focused on speaking and listening.
The reason for the low price is that 51Talk uses teachers from the Philippines, who themselves are mostly university students or call centre workers. Each teacher has their own profile page, with a recorded message to introduce themselves and their teaching style. This helps students hear the quality of the teacher’s English, and helps them choose which teacher to use. In terms of the quality of the English, it is certainly good enough for the majority of Chinese students.
The quality of English in China has improved over the past few years, as people have greater access to foreign TV shows and films. In addition, the growing number of Chinese students that attend university overseas will only help to improve the average level of English in China.