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ELT: mixed feelings about current climate but “hope and positivity” ahead

The ELT sector continues to battle with Brexit and Covid, but there is “hope and positivity” about the next two years, according to conference attendees.

Schools, publishers, assessment professionals and more from across ELT came together for the Eaquals conference in Venice. Photo: The PIE News

The general mood demonstrated mixed feelings about what the future holds

As over 200 ELT schools, universities, publishers and other major players met at the back-on-schedule Eaquals conference in Venice, Italy, the general mood demonstrated mixed feelings about what the future holds for language teaching across the world.

“We were cautiously optimistic about things in October, whereas now we’re definitely looking forward positively for the membership and membership growth,” Eaquals director Lou McLaughlin told The PIE News.

“Sector wise, things will still be sort settling down; I’d say we could see a few more school closures, which would be a shame, but nothing like we saw before,” she added.

Optimism is continuing to build in places like Ireland and Malta, where students are reportedly flocking in the wake of Brexit wreaking havoc on the UK’s inbound ELT market.

However, for some schools, this barrage of interest has been almost overwhelming.

“There’s an overflow of students – it’s just so busy,” Anna Maroutian, of the LinguaViva Centre in Dublin and membership officer of ELT Ireland, told The PIE.

“For example, we only had one space left in an advanced class for next week, we’re getting a lot of traction – whether that will last to the summer months remains to be seen, but we don’t know,” she continued.

“There’s an overflow of students – it’s just so busy”

This overflow of students could also be directly contributing to continuing crisis in Ireland surrounding accommodation availability – students have reportedly been sleeping on the streets after not being able to find accommodation in cities like Cork and Dublin.

However, these mixed feelings to carry worry in terms of staffing – teachers are the most valued commodity and now simply “hard to come by,” according to the Bournemouth English Book Centre’s operations director Nick Edwards.

“I know of one school in the UK that currently has capacity for 1,200 people – they only have enough teachers, at the moment, for 60,” Edwards said, speaking to The PIE.

“That struggle of finding teaching has gone from strength to strength – a lot of teachers said there’s not enough money in the industry. They don’t want to work online, which is understandable. They wanted to teach face-to-face and a lot of them are coming out of it,” he added.

One teacher from an Irish school also said that while the stream of students was steady, a lot of teachers were “switching careers” and it is making the recovery more and more difficult.

Some teachers, however, are not as set on coming back to face-to-face teaching.

“One school in the UK that currently has capacity for 1,200 people – they only have teachers for 60”

Charlotte Murphy, professional development manager at Oxford University Press told the PIE that a teacher based in Russia said none of the teachers at the school want to return to face-to-face teaching because it just “doesn’t suit their lifestyles anymore”.

“As with all industries and workers, there’s now this question of, do we keep what we established online or do we return to what it was before? Or merge the two?” Murphy said.

Reflecting on the conference, Skills for English’s senior VP for assessment services Isabelle Gonthier said that people are now happy to have the “right conversation”.

“We talked to teachers, publishers, and the energy was high and that was good – from a pandemic standpoint, the need to push the acceptance of online proctoring is a big deal, especially within language testing.

“I think generally we’re seeing more uptake, which is good and what’s needed; there’s more movement, we’re looking at universities that are picking back up,” Gonthier told The PIE.

The industry, as Murphy puts it, is on somewhat of a “tipping point” – and making a decision on staff work balance may be key in the future successes of the sector going into 2022-23.

As for Eaquals itself, the number seen at the conference, according to McLaughlin, made for encouraging news about the sector’s mobility.

“We’re hoping that the 200 registered this year will propel us to get up to our normal 300/320 mark by next year – so signs are moving in the right direction.

“Mixed is the word to describe where we are at the moment. Irish members have been hugely busy, the UK not so much. For the most part the other countries are moving along as well as they can, but Ireland and the UK’s trends are the main ones standing out,” McLaughlin added.

“There’s more movement – we’re looking at universities that are picking back up”

Sessions at the conference laid heavy on elements such as e-learning, business and marketing management and best practice for teachers in the classroom.

Highlights included a talk from Pearson on how English language learning fits into trends of student employability, and a session from Andrea Scibetta of the University for Foreigners in Siena on trends in Italy of Chinese international students.

“The Chinese presence in Italy in terms of international students is very remarkable; it takes UNESCO’s 10th position in terms of a single country hosting Chinese international students.”

Despite numbers falling because of the pandemic, Scibetta said, they were still accounting for almost a quarter of the amount of international students in Italy last year at 22%.

A closing plenary of the idea of “plurilanguaging” – an amalgam term of plurilingualism and the idea of languaging took attendees back to the basics of what it means to learn a language and understand it as a concept.

“Merrill Swain proposed the word ‘languaging’ – a dynamic, never-ending process of using language to make meaning… plurlianguaging builds on that, with the same process, but using different linguistic and semiotic resources.

“The establishment of one’s personality happens with the assistance of the language you’re offered in your environment – most intensely with your first, but each new language offers an opportunity to be even more powerful,” said Waldemar Martyniuk, professor of the Institute of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners and the Jagiellonian University in Poland.

“I have never stopped wondering – what is language, really? How are they learned, and how may they be best taught? I have found the term plurlingualism, and plurilanguaging very useful [in this respect].”

The gallery from Eaquals’ annual conference in Venice can be found here.

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