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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002
English school exec sees kids as growth market
By ERIKO ARITA
English-conversation schools in Japan are facing a major business opportunity as demand for their services for children increases, according to a senior local official of a top chain of foreign-language schools.
Mahmoud S. Kashani, executive vice president of Berlitz Japan Inc., said his firm is targeting children as the customer bracket with the most growth potential for its English-conversation courses.
"We want to capture the kids market, and there is potential for that," Kashani said during a recent interview with The Japan Times. "We want to have a very long-term relationship with our customers. We want to get them when they are very young and keep them until they grow up and go to work."
Berlitz Japan is a branch of Berlitz International Inc., which started foreign-language lessons in the United States in 1878. The Japan branch opened its first school in 1966 in Tokyo and it has the biggest share of corporate foreign-language training programs in Japan, according to the company.
Kashani, who has been working at Berlitz Japan for 18 years, said the firm has recently turned its focus to young children while it continues to offer services for corporate clients.
In 2000, the company launched an English-language program called Sesame English in which children aged between 4 and 12 learn the language through programs based on the popular U.S. TV show "Sesame Street."
At present, the program has 7,000 to 10,000 children, and about 5 percent of Berlitz Japan's sales currently come from the children's education business, according to Kashani.
"We would like to achieve 10 percent of our total sales from kids," he said, adding that with the steady growth in the number of young students, the firm aims to achieve this goal by 2005.
Kashani maintained that demand for English courses for kids is rising despite the stagnant economy and the decreasing number of children.
"In this gloomy economic condition, it is important for parents to make sure that their children have security for the future by having them learn English or other skills to help them," he said.
With English lessons included as an option for comprehensive studies classes, which were introduced in public elementary schools in April, parents are becoming increasingly interested in English education for their children.
According to the Japan Association for the Promotion of Foreign Language Education, whose members include 45 major English-conversation school chains, most member companies offer English courses for children, and the number of students in these courses has been growing in the past few years.
Although competition among foreign-language schools is intensifying in the child market, Kashani said he hopes to double by 2005 the number of Berlitz language centers, which currently stands at 62.
But while the desire to study English is strong among Japanese, Kashani said there have been complaints about services provided by some English-teaching companies, such as over allegedly misleading contracts.
He said the industry needs to become more responsible and accountable for its activities so the public will feel confident about using language schools' services.