previous page

Why learn English?

With 2.5 billion people worldwide either speaking or learning English, it truly is the global language. For many people, learning to speak English could be the gateway to world-class higher education and even employment. 

Why learn English?

It is the most common medium used by speakers of other languages to communicate with eachother. More internet pages are in English than any other language, and it is the language in which much academic research and news information appears. 

In the business and political worlds, understanding English is indispensable. 

Because English is so widely used, most people know at least a few words. But as with any language, fluency only comes with systematic learning and plenty of practice. One of the best ways to combine formal English language study and regular practice is through an English language course in an English-speaking country. Constantly using the English learned in classes during the student’s free time reinforces and accelerates learning.


“With 2.5 billion speakers, English is a global language”

Studying English

A host of opportunities for learning English as a second language exists worldwide, and choosing the best option depends on several factors, including the individual’s learning objectives, time available and naturally also budget.

Providers of English language courses range from private language schools and public colleges attracting students from all over the world, to educational tour operators running organised summer programmes for mainly young people from the same country. 

Among the most popular countries for English study are the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada. In recent decades, Malta and South Africa have attracted more and more English language students, while in the future many expect to see more programmes in the English-speaking countries of Asia, notably Singapore.  

What to expect

Courses are available at all levels of English. A typical private language school will run general English programmes at all levels. Students may take a pre-arrival online test, but in all events will be tested again on arrival and placed in the most appropriate group. 

Nowadays, the curriculum of these schools is structured to allow students to join the course in any week. The emphasis is on ‘communicative learning’; involving considerable listening and speaking practice. 

For those with specific learning goals, a whole spectrum of special courses and programmes exists, usually requiring a minimum language level. Since many people learn English for their future or existing business career, business English and all its varieties are particularly popular. Business English is often offered as an elective in combination with a general English course, but dedicated business English courses focusing on the language of written and spoken business communication are also quite common. 

For business people with little time and a higher budget, mini-group courses in sales negotiation, making presentations and other specific areas are offered by general and specialist executive language centres, and anyone with the means to afford it can book tailor-made one-to-one tuition.

English language tests

With any learning activity, a target helps. Examinations are a good way to measure progress and ensure a balanced set of skills. A specific English language standard is always required for entering university and often crucial to getting a particular job. The most widely accepted qualifications for students needing a minimum English level for undergraduate or postgraduate study in an English-speaking country are TOEFL and IELTS, and many public colleges as well as private language schools prepare students for these. The examination is usually taken at the school or a nearby registered examination centre. 

Well known, widely recognised general English qualifications are offered by the University of Cambridge, whose Cambridge English: Advanced examinations for learners and teachers of English are taken by over three million people worldwide. The Cambridge English: Advanced suite of examinations also includes business English certificates at several levels. 

Learning English for academia

Successful, stress-free higher education study demands specific English skills and these are covered by the many academic English courses on offer. 

Taking lecture notes, giving seminars, writing academic essays and papers as well as common academic vocabulary are taught and practiced in courses that start from two weeks, but are more typically four to twelve weeks.

For many English language students, learning English is part of a bigger study and career plan, featuring a series of ‘building blocks’ - often called a pathway - from language study through high school graduation to university. 

Many universities and colleges in English-speaking countries will accept international students directly from specially designed foundation programmes run by other institutions that teach English along with the study of relevant school subjects in English, sometimes referred to as ‘English-medium learning’. The institutions co-operate closely to ensure the foundation, or access, programme contains the right content and meets the required standard. 

Students have the added advantage of preparing for university entrance over at least a year in an English-speaking country, usually the same country from which they intend to graduate. This not only helps their linguistic fluency, but accustoms them to the culture and educational system of their future university.

Culture is a vital element of language learning. The customs of a country are reflected in its language and to integrate successfully, the foreigner should be sensitive to and largely follow those cultural norms. 

Learning English in the country where the language is spoken provides that opportunity through social interaction and everyday life lived among the people. 

Accommodation and social life

All reputable English-teaching institutions catering for overseas learners offer accommodation and, with very few exceptions, an organised social programme. 

Accommodation can be residential or in a homestay – the home of a local person or family. The advantage of homestay accommodation lies in the extra opportunities to hear and speak English as well as the unique insight into the culture of the host country.

But residential accommodation has become more popular in the last decade, particularly with older students, who like to be more independent and enjoy living with other international students in a ‘university halls’ atmosphere.

Living abroad, even for a short time, can be a daunting experience, especially for first-timers travelling alone to a very different country. So language-teaching institutions have developed social and activity programmes where their students can meet eachother, go out and do things together in English. 

A typical programme features parties, dinners, games nights, theatre and shows, museum visits, local sightseeing, day excursions, sports activities and even weekends away. 

The programme will be tailored to the institution’s student body, which is normally mainly 18-35 year-olds, but could be executives or teenagers.

Where to study

Deciding where to study involves careful research. While people often have a destination country in mind, the type and size of institution, whether it is in a big city or small town, its programmes, its class sizes, facilities and of course its prices will influence the decision. But central to that decision should be some kind of accreditation. 

Accredited institutions must meet certain standards, not only in teaching, but also in the way they operate and deal with the student – their customers – and the study abroad consultants and agencies who represent them worldwide, and who are a good starting point for discovering the world of English language learning abroad. 

Jan Capper
Executive Director
International Association of Language Centres (IALC)