Berlitz Israel chief criticizes country's English instruction

Gadi Bleicher gives Israelis "between a six and a seven" for their English skills.

Berlitz (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Gadi Bleicher is stepping down from a position that, over the past 10 years, has provided him a bird's-eye view of how Israelis relate to the English language, and to how "Anglos" teach it here. After being Berlitz Israel's district director from 1997 to 2002, and then its CEO for the past five years, he gives Israelis a grade of six out of 10 for their English proficiency. His competitors in English language instruction, including the formal education system, fare much worse in his estimation: somewhere between 1 and 2. Bleicher shoots in all directions, blaming the formal education system for only teaching children how to read and write in English, but not to speak, saying this hampers Israelis as they seek their fortunes overseas. He slams his main competitors ("Wall Street Institute's gimmicks don't impress"); and Hebrew ulpanim ("It's very difficult to learn how to speak Hebrew in an ulpan these days"). Bleicher rejects accusations that Berlitz's pay scale and working conditions are not good enough to attract high-quality new immigrants ("Show me one other organization that absorbs as many olim as we do"). When Bleicher, 40, joined Berlitz in 1997, the company had three schools in Israel. Ten years later there are nine, teaching mostly English, but also Chinese, Japanese, Italian, German, Arabic and many other languages, including Hebrew. Berlitz is also the exclusive supplier of language-teaching services to various state and corporate bodies, including the Foreign Ministry and several of the security services. He also developed live instruction through the Internet at Berlitz Israel, something that has been adopted by Berlitz worldwide. Bleicher spoke with The Jerusalem Post recently at the end of this impressive tenure, summing up his time at Berlitz and giving his opinions about how the English language instruction industry is faring in Israel. You've been a manager at Berlitz for the past 10 years, the first five as a district director and the last five as its CEO. What is your impression of the Israeli who walks into your school for the first time to learn a language, specifically English? "Israelis are characterized by assertiveness and self-confidence. I think that in general Israelis feel comfortable using the amount of English they have acquired. Other people from other cultures may feel less comfortable using their English abroad or among other English speakers, and they would feel less confident about speaking and making mistakes. Israelis don't mind so much if they talk with mistakes. I believe that you can see this confidence when you look at how many Israeli start-ups there are and how global they go. "Israelis are in general daring and motivated to learn. This is also evidenced by the fact that Berlitz Israel has more lessons per capita, by far, than any other country in the world that has Berlitz schools. We're in countries with vastly larger populations than Israel, but per capita, we teach more here than anywhere else in the world. This shows you that Israelis are motivated to learn languages, for a variety of reasons, including the ability to do business on the global stage. "Because Israel is so small - it is not Germany with over 70 million people - Israelis are always trying to export their skills, companies and services. And this requires knowledge of languages. In the 1970s Israel exported a lot of agricultural innovations and products. After that there were all sorts of industries being exported. And now the big export is hi-tech." What have you learned and seen from the other Berlitz schools you have visited all over the world? Is there anything unique in the Israeli experience? "The experience varies from country to country. One thing that stands out in Israel is that the Berlitz centers here innovate all sorts of pedagogic techniques and ideas on average more than in other places. I've already mentioned the high ratio of lessons per capita. I would say that things here are more intensive than in most other countries." What grade would you give Israelis as a whole on their level of English? After some reflection, Bleicher responds, "A six. Between a six and seven. Many people here speak English, in many cases it's bad English, but they speak. I very much respect that Israelis take what little English they know and stretch it as far as they can when they travel and when they do business." How do you rate the level of English taught at state schools? "Israeli children are not taught to speak at school. They are taught grammar and comprehension, but they cannot speak in English, even after they matriculate. That's a mistake. They are just not taught to speak in English. When you put 40 kids in a class, it's really hard to teach them how to talk. It's easier to teach them reading, writing and comprehension. Besides that, Hebrew and English are vastly different. Even with all the exposure to English through channels like MTV and films, you can't expect Israeli children to be able to absorb all that language and be naturally able to speak it." What do Israelis tell you about their feelings toward the English language? "Most Israelis that I come across who enter our language school say they want to learn, that it's important to them, that they need it. I'm generalizing here, but the majority of them come to learn English as a goal that they have set themselves." What feedback are you getting from people who study at your school? "We've carried out three major surveys in the past decade, and we've found that 44 percent of the people who have studied at Berlitz got there through word of mouth. Many of our students study several levels of a language, and this takes time. In many cases people come to learn from anywhere between six months to one year, two or three times per week for several hours a day. The feedback I get is that people tell me the lessons have helped them immeasurably in their lives, that it has opened doors for them, that they enjoy their trips abroad more, those kinds of things. Sixty-five percent of those coming to Berlitz come to learn English." Some people complain of poor working conditions and low salaries at Berlitz schools. Others say Berlitz misses a huge opportunity to hire new immigrants as teachers, especially those from Anglo countries, because the pay is low compared to salaries back home. "In 1992, Berlitz Israel opened up as a subsidiary of Berlitz worldwide. We have anywhere between 400 to 500 teachers, some who work part-time and some who work on a full-time basis. A very large percentage of these teachers are now, or were at some stage, new immigrants. About a quarter of them have been with us for over 10 years. I have quite a few teachers who have been with Berlitz for 14 years. Most of the top Berlitz managers have been with us for over five years. We've had good times and we've had bad times, but many people have chosen to stay with us. "Secondly, what you earn as a teacher depends on what you teach, how often you teach, and how well you perform as a teacher. I have more work for an English teacher than I have for a Korean teacher, because there is more demand for English. It's quite possible that a teacher of Korean won't have many classes and I can't pay him much." Yes, but many Anglo immigrants come to Israel and say they won't take a job with Berlitz because the wages are too low. "I don't think I have a problem with finding work for Anglo immigrants. I would even venture that Berlitz is one of the leading immigrant-absorption organizations in Israel with regards to employment. All of our teachers are people who arrived from overseas, with either a first or second degree, and they teach their mother tongues. I can't think of even one other organization in this country that absorbs dozens of immigrants every year for employment. "It's also one of the few places that teachers can, if they load their schedule appropriately, earn the same salary as salespeople. If a teacher says he or she is available five days a week, they will earn more than someone who works less, obviously. If a teacher is only available for two afternoons per week, we can find him or her a job, but they won't earn much." Bleicher declines to say just how much Berlitz teachers earn, reiterating only that the salary depends on how much they teach, how long they've been teaching and on their performance. Teachers undergo one week of training, after which Berlitz has them sign a contract promising that if they leave before nine months have passed, they must pay a penalty of more than NIS 1,000. Starting pay ranges from NIS 29 to NIS 32 per 45-minute lesson unit, depending on the location of the school. After a few months, teachers can earn a few shekels more per unit. If you "do charter," that is work outside of the center, at community centers, for example, it's slightly more. English teachers at the competing Wall Street Institute are paid between NIS 25 and NIS 29 per one-hour lesson unit to start, with opportunities for bonuses. A nine-month commitment is also mandatory, as well as a two-week training seminar at NIS 20 an hour. Working five hours per day, five days a week, a starting teacher at a Wall Street Institute school earns roughly NIS 3,000 per month. Several former and current Berlitz Israel employees contacted by the Post this week had a range of comments about their place of employment. Some praised the flexible nature of the job, while others complained that even if one were to work full-time, the salary would not be enough to support a single-income household. Several new immigrants said they were depressed at the low salaries offered at the language schools. Many former Berlitz and Wall Street English instructors now teach privately. Teachers' wages in the state education system are the lowest in the industrialized world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with starting educators earning NIS 2,400 [$600] per month. "I'm not comparing salaries in the education system to salaries in hi-tech," Bleicher says. "You should compare salaries within the education sector. People at Berlitz earn salaries that are at least double, and in some cases triple, what someone in the government education system earns. In comparison to my competitors and the formal education system, people at Berlitz earn respectable salaries. "We also offer people interesting career paths. All Berlitz positions are first made available to those already inside the system. Employees who have started with us as teachers went on to become regional sales agents, pedagogical managers, language school managers and so on. They moved on to management positions without ever having any management education or experience, and I think Berlitz is unique in that it provides its employees opportunities like those. We also have positions for cultural consultants that advise businesspeople on the intricacies of foreign cultures and codes before they embark on business overseas." Why do you think more new immigrants don't want to work at Berlitz? "Unfortunately, Berlitz Israel can only offer a limited number of positions; I wish I could offer more. I wish there were more places like Berlitz that could absorb more immigrants. Most of the people who work at Berlitz now, and in the past, were at some stage new immigrants. You can only teach your native language at Berlitz." Why do you teach Hebrew? Aren't ulpanim much more popular and effective? "It's becoming increasingly difficult to learn how to speak Hebrew in ulpanim these days. Many people go to ulpan and don't learn. For new immigrants, the government pays for ulpan, and naturally private language schools are better. "In an ulpan, you sit with a lot of people in the class, and among the set of four skills [reading, writing, comprehension and speaking], what you're not going to learn is how to speak. And what you want to do as a new immigrant is learn how to speak. It's not critical if you're a new immigrant to be able to read and write at a high level, you'll find that immigrants continue to read in their own languages. But to talk is critical: You want to talk to people, to communicate and connect, and this is the first thing you're taught to do at Berlitz." What's the average level of English displayed by a teenager who comes to learn at Berlitz? "It depends. Some parents who have just returned from overseas postings [private or state] bring their children to us so that they can maintain and build on their level. These kids usually have strong English. "Other parents want to give their kids a head start in English, something beyond what they get in the formal education system with 40 kids in a class. They want their kids to learn how to speak the language with confidence. In our kids' programs, 95% of the lessons are English. For the adults, it's somewhere around 70%. But I think our formal education system is undergoing some necessary changes." What is your opinion on your competitor, the Wall Street Institute, and its practice of speaking only English from the minute a student walks into their school? "We don't have any real competition that gives all the services that Berlitz gives. There is competition in specific markets like children and business clients, but nobody that provides all around services. Wall Street competes with us only on the consumer sector and only in English." The Wall Street Institute is a large concern, with 420 learning centers in 23 countries, teaching about 200,000 people. [Berlitz has 450 centers in 60 countries]. Wall Street has nine language centers in Israel and claims to be the largest school for the instruction of the English language in the country. Repeated requests to speak with a Wall Street Institute representative were unsuccessful. What's the state of the English language teaching industry in Israel today? "The English language instruction industry in Israel is well developed, but very fragmented. There are many private English teachers, many of them. There are students who teach English. There are many small, localized teaching companies. There are companies that teach only children, or only corporate clients." That sounds like a healthy industry, wouldn't you say? "Like everything, there are advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that with this much fragmentation and people doing their own thing, it is very hard to set even a minimal standard of instruction, let alone a unified standard. As a result of this, you have a lot of people who are learning the language with unqualified teachers. One of the basic things that you need to look for when you decide on a place to study is to make certain that it has well-developed teaching materials, a solid teaching system, a recognized teacher-training program, and that the place has experience and a good reputation. Berlitz is the only company in the field of language instruction in Israel that has the ISO [International Organization for Standardization] certificate, which is only granted after your institution has undergone intensive examination by your local government standards authority. "Now if you study at a language school that is not particularly good, and you come out of there without successfully learning the language, you're most likely to blame yourself. This is not good, and it's a pity, because you may have the potential to learn languages but you've just chosen the wrong place to go study. In this regard, because there are so many players in the field at so many different levels, I see the industry fragmentation as negative."