English language learning can accurately be described as a national obsession in China. More than 400 million people are learning English at any given time and among them are around 269 million children ages 0 - 14 years old. The ESL market has nearly doubled in size in the last five years and is now worth around $3.1bn. China is the fastest growing private English education sector in the world.
English as a foreign language is required curriculum from 3rd grade in primary school through the third year of university. College students must pass the College English Test, Band 4 (CET-4), or an equivalent, in order to receive a bachelor's degree. However, there are problems. EF English First is the Chinese market leader in English instruction. A spokesperson for the company, Ming Chen, said "People in China, from primary school to university, spend many hours learning English but still cannot speak it."
US entertainment giant Disney saw this as a unique opportunity to teach English to small children, while at the same time establishing an extention of its branded products and characters across the country. Disney English launched a chain of children's English language schools, opening its first school two years ago in Shanghai and plans to expand from 11 to 148 schools across China in five years. Their target market is children 2 - 12.
Andrew Sugerman, Disney English's general manager, said: "Disney's focus groups find that for Chinese parents, 'education means everything'. English, in particular, is viewed as a ticket to the wider world. Studies commissioned by Disney estimate that the market for children's English-language education in China is growing by 12% annually and will reach $3.7 billion by 2012."
Opinion polls show that Chinese parents are most concerned about making learning fun and effective for their children. The rapidly growing Chinese middle class, with rising disposable income, means there is no shortage of parents and grandparents willing to pay the tuition.