Business English revives schools

The recent corporate trend of making English the “official language” within companies has given a tailwind to the formerly faltering English language school business.

As a number of companies aim to establish or maintain a global presence, English language schools are working to develop educational programs more practical than those offered by their rivals for businesspeople who need to use English at work.

Such a move came after companies, including online shopping mall operator Rakuten, Inc. and Fast Retailing Co., the operator of casual clothing chain Uniqlo, required their employees to use English as their official in-house language.

The English education-related industry has striven to capitalize on what it views as a golden opportunity.

During the April-June period, Berlitz Japan, Inc., an operator of foreign language schools, saw the number of its corporate customers and individual regular students who are company employees jump 50 percent from a year earlier. Its summer short program also has attracted about 2-1/2 times as many students as in the previous year.

Another English school operator, Gaba Corp., enjoyed a similar boost, with corporate contracts up 12 percent year on year in the first half of 2010.

According to private research firm Yano Research Institute, the market for foreign language business shrank about 5.8 percent to 502.6 billion yen in fiscal 2009, forcing Geos Corp., a major industry player, to file for bankruptcy.

With the economy recovering, however, the nation’s corporate environment has changed. With a growing number of companies aiming to expand their overseas operations, particularity in Asia, they are racing to secure people with a good command of English.

Panasonic Corp. is set to hire about 80 percent of its new employees who are fresh out of school for next fiscal year overseas. Half of the 600 people that Fast Retailing plans to employ in fiscal 2011 are also expected to be non-Japanese. Such moves have boosted the popularity of business English programs.

A 35-year-old company employee who studies at an English language school in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, said, “As we’ve come to communicate with overseas clients through e-mail and video conferences on a daily basis, I’m worried that I might slow down business operations because of my poor English.”

“Companies like Rakuten could fuel ‘English fever,'” a source familiar with the industry said.