Regina Coeli – a gold standard for language teaching schools?

I know, I know, two posts in two days – what is the world coming to?  You can put it down to my computer being away from home at the moment – I’m hoping to get it back from the workshop today, but in the meantime I’m stuck on Catrin’s tablet, which means I can’t do any real work…;-)

So, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, last week Louis and I had the fascinating opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the extremely interesting company of Esther van Berkel, Director of the Regina Coeli Language School.  Esther was extremely generous with her time (and is probably wondering why I haven’t answered her on LinkedIn – it’s because I can’t work out how to on this tablet, Esther, but I promise I will as soon as my real computer is fixed!) – and it was enormously inspiring to see a language school that really, seriously pushes the boundaries.

Now, I’ve been involved in a lot of different language teaching organisations, as learner and teacher – from the genuinely effective (hat-tip to the month-long intensive Wlpan course in Aberystwyth) to the truly dreadful (two different institutions for the teaching of Arabic shall go nameless at this point!).  I have never seen anywhere half as impressive as Regina Coeli, though, and I believe they’re a gold standard which we desperately need to emulate in Wales.

What’s so remarkable about them?

First off, they do NOT give you an easy ride.  On a Regina Coeli course, you can expect to be clocking in ten hours a day, in a mixture of instruction, production and socialising.  I’m fascinated by this, because I’ve never seen any course, even so-called intensive ones, that expect students to do more than about five hours a day – if it’s possible for people to put twice the effort in without suffering from burn-out (which it obviously is, or Regina Coeli wouldn’t exist) then it’s clearly going to speed up the process enormously – probably much more than doubling it, since I’d expect a cumulative effect.

Second, all their instruction is one-to-one, based on a personalised learning structure with personalised (and clear) targets.  Inevitably, this means that they are extremely expensive – but it is without question the ideal approach, when backed up with regular opportunity for social interaction and production (as happens at Regina Coeli).

Thirdly, because they were originally established by nuns, they’re not driven by a profit motive – when they make profit, they tend to spend it on worthwhile causes.  This frees up their leaders to focus on improving their results, and it’s clear that they’re paying close attention to developments in a number of fields including neuroscience – they’ve built a gym to encourage students to exercise in their breaks, and even if the massage chairs are the most popular part of the gym, its very existence must mean that more students exercise than would if it wasn’t there, and the relevant research is very clear on the benefits that will be having.

So, are we going to shut down SaySomethingin and just point people to Regina Coeli?

Well, no – they don’t do a Welsh course…;-)

There are other interesting differences between us, too.  Because they aim to use full time staff for all courses, they have to establish and maintain demand, and that means they can’t offer courses that won’t generate enough income.  They offer seven languages at the moment, and will almost certainly never be in a position to head off in the direction of languages like Latin and Cornish, or Chickasaw, or Dharawal, as we enjoy trying to do.

They also have a slightly different take on grammar – instead of trying to avoid it entirely, as we do, they have a grammar section every day in order to draw out the most useful points for each individual student.  I can imagine this working in a one-on-one situation where the teacher can make sure the student isn’t responding negatively, but I don’t think it would work as well for a purely online course like us.

Oh, and because we don’t have the physical infrastructure, we can of course keep costs much lower, and reach more people, which I believe strongly is a valuable contribution.  I would dearly love to spend a week at Regina Coeli, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to persuade Iestyn to free up the £3k or so we’d need!  In fact, I’m not even going to ask, because I don’t want to give him a coronary…;-)

We can and will be inspired by Regina Coeli, though.

In particular, their expectation that students put in 10 hours a day will keep me motivated as we move towards testing our first 48 hour intensive kick-start for Welsh.  I’ve been concerned that it might be asking too much of the student – but if people can do 10 hours at Regina Coeli, they can get through 10 half-hour sessions of our material in a day, with appropriate intervals and sessions for production (oh, and maybe food, too…;-)).

I’m also keen to draw the attention of the Welsh for Adults Centres and the Assembly to what’s being done at Regina Coeli.  I think the Assembly should fund a similar centre of excellence for the teaching of Welsh, although I suppose it’s not very likely that they actually will.

If they don’t, we’ll just have to figure out a way to do it ourselves.

Which means I need to see if my computer is ready, and get back to importing the last few sessions of our new Spanish tourist course – Phil and Alison’s terrific video is waiting patiently at SaySomethinginSpanish.com, and we have a system in place to offer the rest of the tourist sessions as a single purchase, so as soon as we actually publish the lessons, we can start testing some advertising.  I hoping that will be before the end of next week…:-)

I’m also hoping we’ll stay in touch with Regina Coeli.  They want to provide more online support for their students after they finish courses, and while elements of that (the continued need for/interest in one-to-one support) will be very different to what we do, if there’s anything we can share with them about our experiences of maintaining online support for 30,000 students, we’ll be very happy to do so.

We’d also be more than happy to let them use any of our materials that they’d like to – our production standards may not be high enough for them yet, but we’re going to carry on improving our processes, so it might become a possibility at some point.

It would also be fascinating to share results of new ideas that they and we will be testing in the coming months and years, particularly if we can get to the point of generating enough material to justify a follow-up meeting.

I’d enjoy a follow-up meeting just for the pleasure of talking with Esther again – she’s a fascinating polyglot – but also because we’ve agreed in principle that if we meet again, it should be in De Efteling.  No-one could ask for more!

[Incidentally, for our early stage Dutch learners – Louis and I have already got our eyes on De Efteling as the perfect location for our first SSiDutch Bootcamp, so now would be a good time to start saving…;-)]

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4 responses to “Regina Coeli – a gold standard for language teaching schools?

    • It’s just got to happen! A week in De Efteling would just be way beyond any reasonable definition of fun…;-)

  1. A week anywhere in Holland would be fun – but then I’m influenced by the fact that I was born and brought up in the Netherlands – at present trying to learn to speak Welsh.

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