More Singaporeans signing up for foreign language classes

Language classes see an upswing in demand as more Singaporeans enrol in them and offset the cost with their SkillsFuture credits

Ms Melissa Tan-Rodriguez picked up Spanish for love.

She started dating her then boyfriend, now husband in 2015 and glimpsed a future in which she might be tongue-tied when meeting his family in Madrid, as they converse mainly in Spanish.

"My husband spoke fluent English, but as our relationship became more serious, I began to consider taking language classes so I could build a better relationship with his family," says the 38-year-old tax specialist, who learnt Chinese as a mother tongue.

She dragged her feet - learning a language is hard work, after all - but what sealed the deal was that the cost of language classes could be offset by the $500 SkillsFuture credit offered by the Government to every Singaporean aged 25 and older .

Ms Tan-Rodriguez used her credits to pay for two beginners' modules of conversational Spanish and can now say more than just "hola", having gone on to immediate modules.

Be it for love, work or simply interest, more Singaporeans have been signing up for language classes in recent years and the introduction of the SkillsFuture credits two years ago has furthered fuelled the trend.

We’ve seen a lot of students who are looking to not only learn new languages, but also explore things such as the culture of the countries these languages originate from.

MR ZHANG GUOYI, director of French Toast Language Centre in Upper Thompson

All eight language schools The Straits Times spoke to say they had a surge in enrolments immediately after the roll-out of the credits.

At inlingua School of Languages in Cuppage Road, there was a 40 to 50 per cent jump in student enrolments in early 2016, says Mr Augustine Siew, the school's managing director.

At French Toast Language Centre in Upper Thomson Road, which offers only French classes, director Zhang Guoyi says its student intake has gone up by 20 per cent since the school's beginner classes were accepted into the SkillsFuture programme last year.

Language classes are a popular option for Singaporeans in their 20s and 30s looking to use their SkillsFuture credits.

According to SkillsFuture SG, as of January last year, it was the second most popular area of training after information and communications technology skills for Singaporeans aged 25 to 29, for instance.

Singaporeans used to learn a foreign language mainly for pragmatic reasons, but more are now doing so out of interest, said language-school operators.

Mr David Lorenzo, who is Spanish and is the principal of Lingo School of Knowledge in Beach Road, says: "Previously, a majority of people who took classes had work or business interests in mind, such as the fact that they were working for a French or German company. But these days, we are definitely seeing more students who are learning a language because they are passionate about it, perhaps because they travel (to that country) often on holiday or they are interested in the culture."

Singaporeans are also trying out foreign languages that are traditionally less common here.

Lingo, for instance, is offering courses on Hebrew, Burmese and Tagalog after getting many requests for these courses. Its most popular language courses are Thai, followed by Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia and German.

The interest in regional languages, in particular, has been spurred by travel to these countries, as well as increasing business opportunities in these emerging markets, say language-school operators.

At inlingua, which offers 16 languages, those such as Burmese, Cambodian and Hindi have begun to see more interest in recent years.

"Our intake of students used to be 50:50 in terms of locals and foreigners, but these days, it is more like 70:30," says Mr Siew.

The increased interest in regional languages could be due to more people travelling to these countries for work or wishing to learn "a more unique language as a passion project" , he adds.

Also becoming more popular are less common European languages such as Portuguese and Dutch.

Private tutor Ronald Koh, 29, used his SkillsFuture credits to take a Portuguese class last year.

Homework and classes after work notwithstanding, he says: "I really enjoyed myself and found it useful when I visited Portugal for a holiday in December."

The availability of SkillsFuture credits has also encouraged Singaporeans to sign up for courses to brush up on their mother tongue languages.

Ms Claire Yue, managing partner of Chinese-language school Elite Linguistic in Jurong East, says it has seen more Singaporeans taking Chinese classes, including Chinese Singaporeans.

But she wonders if the increased interest in learning languages can be sustained.

"Even though we have locals studying new languages, it is not a mandatory skill for survival in Singapore - as long as you can speak English here, you are fine," she says.

"It's why a lot of schools still struggle to keep students coming back. Beyond just the time, finances and effort required, the courses also require students to be passionate about the subject at some level. Without that, it is hard to stay motivated."

Other language-school operators are more sanguine.

French Toast's Mr Zhang says: "We've seen a lot of students who are looking to not only learn new languages, but also explore things such as the culture of the countries these languages originate from.

"It's a very positive thing as this helps broaden perspectives and makes people more perceptive of their surroundings."


Develop with SkillsFuture

SkillsFuture is a national movement to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop new skills.

As part of SkillsFuture, Singaporeans aged 25 and above get an opening credit of $500. The credit will not expire and the Government will provide periodic top-ups.

The credits can be used currently for more than 14,000 approved courses under language skills.

SkillsFuture credit payments are disbursed directly to training providers and students pay only the net fees after deducting their SkillsFuture credits.

Students can opt for classes focused on conversational skills or attend foundational courses that cover areas such as grammar.

Beginner-level group language classes here cost $250 to $400 and take between 18 and 24 hours a module.

Most schools run 11/2-to two-hour classes for adults after working hours, starting from 7pm. Some also hold weekend classes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'Let's learn '. Print Edition | Subscribe