English Language Industry in Latin America

Posted on 25. Feb, 2011 by in colombia, peru

Alternate Title: Bogota English Immersions FAIL

I moved to Bogota from Arequipa, Peru in April 2009. The plan was to go entrepreneur and start businesses in Latin America. I planned to teach English part-time for as long as I needed the extra money.

I lived in Peru on a 90-day tourist visa. In Peru, you can leave every ninety days and come right back for a new tourist visa. I know a woman who did that for six years before marrying a Peruvian. Colombia doesn’t allow that, I learned after arriving. The most you can spend in country on a tourist visa is six months per calendar year. So not only did I have to teach English because I needed money, I had to get a work visa as well. In a week I had a job at an institute that sponsors work visas.

I titled this post “… in Latin America,” but it’s more relevant for Latin American capitals and big business hubs: Bogota, Lima, BA, DF, Sao Paolo, Rio, Santiago, etc. A gringo in Medellin told me there isn’t much demand for English teachers there. I don’t know how true that is, but I know multinationals put their local offices in capitals. And the gringo managers who pay for their Latino staff to take English classes are the bread and butter for gringos surviving on teaching English. (Most of my students have their classes subsidized by Gringolandia.)  Some of these offices manage company operations throughout Latin America.

My institute caters to multinationals in Colombia. I’m a commodity for my MBA and corporate experience. The institute started me out a little higher (27,000 pesos / hour) than most. Professors (at universities and elite high schools) and freelancers make more, but I’ve met some teachers who make a disturbing 10,000 – and get no work visa! I’ve also met teachers who couldn’t speak English.

Institutes like mine send teachers to the students at their offices. These corporate warriors don’t have time to go to a classroom. The classes come to them at the office, before or after their work day. Classes are small, four at most.

It wasn’t long before I realized I was good at teaching English. This doesn’t mean my students speak better than if they’d studied under a different teacher. It means they continued taking classes – a critical success factor in the English language industry.

The last thing these professionals want is to wake up at 5 am – or stay at the office two extra hours after the workday – to sit in a boring English class. I’m an outgoing guy, so my classes aren’t boring. Even if I get straight-laced engineers or accountants, I get them to open up and laugh.

On the other hand, I’ve met English teachers I couldn’t listen to for ten minutes – much less for two hours three times a week. Institute Pimp sometimes has to juggle teachers’ schedules to accommodate new students. Once he gave my class to an uptight Kraut chick, and those students quit showing up. Classes discontinued.

The American accent is a commodity. I know at least once Institute Pimp took me out of one class for another which specifically asked for an American teacher.

Obviously, native English speakers are valued higher than non-natives. Institute Pimp can’t give a Colombian teacher to an advanced class. The higher levels’ most important needs are understanding native English talk and interacting with confidence. If there’s a Spanish accent or rhythm in a teacher’s voice, they’re only good for students learning the basics. Institute Pimp, a Colombian who lived in the US for almost ten years, couldn’t teach these classes. As in his case, some Latinos speak good enough English to teach any level, but having a name like Carlos or Carolina taints them in the customer’s mind.

Non-native speakers from Northern Europe can trick people. They come off as native speakers. The Dutch, the Germans, the countries of Scandinavia, all these people speak excellent English. And they look like us. I once heard a Danish guy, who was CELTA-certified, explain something about English that I didn’t know. They’re often just as competent of teachers. And though they certainly lack the natural rhythm of us natives, I don’t think Colombians can tell the difference between them and us. It’s just weird when I can’t pronounce their names. Ulrich?

Enticing students to continue classes is a small part of the key success factor in the English language industry: sales. While Institute Pimp couldn’t teach advanced classes, he can sell. And sell he does.

Here’s my pimps and whores analogy: Institutes are pimps who sell time for teachers, the whores. Teachers able to sell their own classes can break away from their pimp institutes and make more money independently. Cut out the middleman. The willingness and ability to sell are what separates institute teachers, who make less, and independent teachers who make more.

One point to cover in every English language product sales pitch (especially to HR departments buying for corporate staff) is ‘metodología’. People want to know your methodology in bringing them to English fluency as fast as possible. English sales reps pile it on. Institute Pimp is an expert. He emphasizes all four English skills (Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing) while flashing expensive course material, official-looking progress reports, and other bells and whistles.

The minutia detailed in the progress reports always amazed me, which must be filled out monthly. I’ve never read an entire progress report I filled out. Here’s a sample progress report I did. The original file was so big I had to delete little graphics and flare so the pdf would fit into this WordPress blog’s max media size of 2MB.

The more I taught English, the more I came to believe the most important factor in English study is quantity.

Bogota English Immersions

My good friend The Mick was around to hear my diatribes about the business, and he watched me come to an understanding of the industry almost equal to his. He’s been teaching freelance since getting out of prison in 1989. He’s taught corporate warriors and upper-class students for over twenty years. His classes are similar to mine. He’s also outgoing and students like him. His classes are pure conversation (you’d know he couldn’t teach reading or writing if you’d read his contributions from The Michelin Man Goes to Jail). He’s also an expert at getting students to continue taking classes.

Responding to my ideas on quantity, The Mick mentioned Richard Morgan Stewart and English immersions. Richard Morgan Stewart is an American who’s been in Bogota over thirty years. He’s built a strong brand name hosting English immersions in Chia (advertising in the upscale Cromos magazine). The idea of an immersion is for the student to get outside the city for a weekend in a pure English environment. In just two days the student gains ~30 hours of English, which would take six weeks with classes.

A true immersion would be what I’ve been living the last three years, or The Mick for the last twenty-five, in Spanish. But if you can’t move to the States or another English-speaking country, the only way you’ll dramatically improve is taking immersions at home.

The Mick proposed launching an immersion business. I have the reading and writing skills combined with a Business English class, and he’s the conversation expert. I can draw up proposals and build websites. He has twenty-five years of professional contacts to sell to. The idea seemed great. We should be able to compete with institutes because we were the sales reps and teachers, so no overhead or middlemen.

We designed a program called Bogota English Immersions. We’d charge two million pesos ($1000) for two students, which includes all food and top-notch accommodations in a quiet pueblo. The Mick said Richard Morgan Stewart was charging in the neighborhood of one million per student per day, or more, so we deliberately priced below him. I built the Bogota English Immersions website and put together a proposal (English and Spanish versions). The Mick made a list of all his contacts. We planned our sales strategy.

We executed the sales strategy. For almost a year, The Mick and I stormed corporate offices along Calle 72 and in the North pitching our English immersions. We visited offices like Microsoft, Juniper, Cisco, Sagem, Nestle, Merck, Sony, 3M, Telefonica-Movistar, and more. I’ve been in Colombia’s stock exchange building over a dozen times. The top bosses all know The Mick.

FAIL

We stoked serious interest in the top managers of GHL Hoteles, a Colombian hotel management firm that’s starting to feel serious heat from multinationals like Hilton and Marriott. We made tentative plans that never happened. The managers became too busy and the line was dropped. When we didn’t get a deal in the first half of 2010, I decided to spend the summer in STL working for dollars.

In St. Louis I realized how much I don’t like teaching English. I’m good at it, but I don’t like it. I didn’t miss it at all.

Aside from a distaste for teaching English, my reservations deepened about starting a business with The Mick, a career criminal and liar. I was skeptical in the early stages, but I always saw this business as something casual. If we could get a deal to make 700,000 pesos each in a quick weekend, great. But dealing with The Mick isn’t always easy. He can be a pain in the ass, heatedly arguing details that have nothing to do with the success or failure of the idea.

I grew cold on passion and confidence. I quit.

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English Sales

After quitting, I decided to recruit the help of Institute Pimp. If anybody could sell this idea, he could. I’d hidden this business from him thus far (aside from being on the first page of Google searches for ‘inmersion ingles bogota’). I decided to tell him about it and see what he thought.

I approached him on the pretext of wanting to move out of teaching and into sales. This isn’t a false pretext. I’d rather sell for commissions than teach. I could even keep the same work visa. Institute Pimp jumped at the idea. He plans to bring me with him to a sales call at Avianca this month. After he sees how I do, I’ll negotiate my commission.

After telling him I was interested in sales, I told him about the English immersions The Mick and I’d been trying to sell. Institute Pimp would love to sell those together, but he had major tweaks to the program. The bottom line, according to him, was one million pesos per student ($500) is way too high. He said for that price Colombians can take an English immersion program in San Andres, the mostly-black, Protestant, English-speaking paradise island in Colombia.

Institute Pimp added that if a Colombian is making 12 million pesos a month ($6000), he’s spending 15 million. He went on about social class, status, and Colombian culture, and how gomelos will spend everything on Mercedes and Tommy Hilfiger to maintain that image, but cut corners on things like learning English. It’s rare to get a Colombian to open up like that. For me it was a wake-up call why The Mick and I never got a deal.

Institute Pimp wants to offer an immersion priced at 390,000 per student ($200), and he’s currently planning the program. He wants me to sell it with him. I told him for 390,000 per student including accommodations, I definitely wouldn’t be willing to teach these immersions. But I’ll sell them. My aim here is to move from the teaching side of the business to the sales side. Because if I’m going to be in the industry at all …

Re: English Sales

Being a gringo is a clear advantage in selling English products. There’s no greater testimony to the quality of the English than having the product pitched by one of us. I knew a Colombian-American guy my first year here who started a small school. He wanted me to work with him, specifically going to sales calls. I think he just wanted me for my blue eyes, accent, and obvious gringo-ness. Without that, it’s more difficult for him to stand out from the competition.

Unless you’re moving down here with a multinational, it’s difficult not to be in the English language industry. I was just telling a fellow American, who moved here quite recently, that it’s inevitable he’ll teach English at some point. He hit me up on Facebook that same night with this:

thank for jinxing me on the english teaching you had not been gone 5 minutes when i was approached to teach english … i am charging 30.000 … i want about 5 students an hour from 7 to 11 now that would be good easy money until i start throwing things at them

I’d never sold a class before starting the immersion business. I didn’t care to before and I still don’t. The 15 hours / week I get from the institute is more than I want to teach.

Even with this attitude, I sold my first independent class two weeks ago. The Mick has a student at the Bogota office of a Japanese technology firm. This student has an employee that MUST learn English ASAP because of new policies coming down from Tokyo. All new policies and procedures are coming down the pipe in English. The boss’s English is good enough to understand, but he doesn’t want his employee’s work dumped on him. He needs an English teacher who can understand this material – a Business English teacher – to help his employee complete documents and implement new policy.

I just sat quiet the entire time in the meeting, listening, while the boss put all the pressure on my new student, who I now have class with three mornings a week for two hours each. They’re paying 150% of my monthly rent for six hours a week.

If you’re trying to survive down here, teaching English offers easy money. Check out the You Can Teach English interview with me from 2010.

If you’re NOT looking for easy money then start a blog 🙂

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9 Responses to “English Language Industry in Latin America”

  1. THE_HONEST

    26. Feb, 2011

    Thanks for the link explaining what Kraut means, sort of.

    I became fluent in Spanish with an iPhone: I used it to stay on top of Twitter accounts, podcasts, blogs, and different feeds from Google News searches for articles on subjects I’m interested in, in Spanish. I even rigged up my browser for 1-click highlighting to Google Translate translation. That’s real immersion, with NO teacher. The same thing could be done by English students, but most people are too lazy or complacent to do the real work for fluency. A few hours of classes with a gringo teacher is never gonna get it done. The truth is that real language fluency takes years of dedicated self study. You have to really want it. You have to actually be interested, for example, in Latin America and the stuff that’s going on there. That’s why I always laugh when I see the yellow Rosetta Stone boxes with the hot chicks on them at the mall–As if an impulse purchase at a mall kiosk could substitute for years of hard work.

  2. Zac

    27. Feb, 2011

    Obviously “The Honest” has language figured out via IPhone, so immersion can be obtained via cellular. Who knew? Colin, I really hope your Bogota brothel site picks up, because I’d be more than glad to be your Medellin affiliate. I think it has more potential than the immersion concept, from my ignorant country state school educated BA based opinion. And I just really want to earn a living in the sex trade.

  3. Mike

    27. Feb, 2011

    My plan is to hire a maid / cook with good Spanish and speak ONLY Spanish at home. Also make sure that she understands that when alone, she is supposed to correct errors like adults do with children. Given the status relationship, that may well be something that requires insistence on my part. Without a doubt, this will make the first few months an incredible pain the ass.

  4. alex

    28. Feb, 2011

    Hypothetically, what would you charge an hour? Fuck the middle man, theres got to be a way to do this…aside from this theres got to be corps or companies that can use a gringo, I know teaching english is the go to but theres got to be something else out there for us.

  5. Dougg

    28. Feb, 2011

    Colin:

    Hey, what about doing a school for teaching Spanish immersion? One day, I am thinking about retiring in Latin America and I would need a Spanish immersion course.

  6. Colin

    01. Mar, 2011

    40,000 an hour is the standard rate independent teachers charge, but that’s going down with the influx of gringos.

    There are Spanish schools here that offer immersion, but I think it’s just classes during the day and when you’re living in Bogota you’re in an immersion. I know they have English immersion schools in Australia, Canada, and small USA towns. They provide classes, room and board, and the students’ free time is immersion.

  7. John

    01. Mar, 2011

    you arent the only one brother who needs a spanish immersion i got offered a job at a pipeline company just for my english understanding not to mention my contacts in the States

  8. John

    01. Mar, 2011

    hey collin i am looking for a gafitti artist if you know one send them my way it is for my arcade it needs painting the way i want it painted

  9. percy graham

    03. Mar, 2011

    Hey Colin I think your blog is simply outstanding!! I live in St. Louis and have always thought about visiting countries down in South America. I find your writing and your topics of discussion very refreshing and enlighting. I grew up in the Central West End and currently live in the Tower Grove area. How about you? Where did you grow up in St. Louis? That story about the Mexicans on Cherokee St. was dead on!!! I laughed my ass off good job. Love the way you try to keep it real. I wish you had more pictures of the areas in South America you talk about. If you ever need some pics of areas in St. Louis send me shout. Anyway keep up the good work its nice to see someone from St. Louis doing such a good job!!!

    Percy

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