Chinese Learn English the Disney Way
James T. Areddy & Peter Sanders
The Wall Street Journal
April 20, 2009
SHANGHAI -- Mickey Mouse has a new job in China: teaching kids how to speak English at new schools owned by Walt Disney Co. popping up in this bustling city.
The company says the initiative is primarily about teaching language skills to children, not extending its brand in the world's most populous nation. But from the oversize Mickey Mouse sculpture in the foyer to diction lessons starring Lilo and Stitch, the company's flagship school here is filled with Disney references.
Classroom names recall Disney movies, such as "Andy's Bedroom," the setting of the "Toy Story" films. To hold the attention of children as young as two years old, there is the Disney Magic Theater, which combines functions of a computer, television and chalkboard and is the main teaching tool.
Disney's foray into English-language instruction in China comes as the niche industry is booming. McKinsey & Co. estimates that China's foreign-language business is worth $2.1 billion annually. More than 300 million Chinese are studying English, according to a speech delivered in January by Premier Wen Jiabao.
Last week Pearson PLC announced it would buy the Wall Street Institute chain of 39 English schools in seven Chinese cities from Carlyle Group for $145 million. Pearson predicted the operation, which focuses on adult education, would generate about $70 million in revenue this year and said it "expects English language teaching in China to remain a good growth market."
Disney, based in Burbank, Calif., already sells merchandise at shops nationwide and has produced two films in the country, including a live-action one due for release this year featuring China's beloved pandas. And in the boldest attempt to extend the brand, the company recently asked China's government for permission to build a $3.59 billion Shanghai Disneyland that could open in 2014.
Still, amid China's limits on foreign media, the company has been unable to start a television channel or distribute its full portfolio of movies in China, and teaching English is a way for Disney to expand its reach. The company plans to have four Shanghai centers by June, from the current two, and to launch in Beijing within a year. Disney declined to say how many students it has.
Disney executives say that if their efforts in China are successful, they'll likely roll out English schools in other countries around the world. But they stress the goal is authentic English learning, not a marketing push.
"We never saw this as an effort to teach the Disney brand and Disney characters," says Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products Worldwide. "We set out to teach Chinese kids English."
Nonetheless, classroom and homework exercises introduce the kind of Disney books, TV shows and movies that China's government otherwise tightly restricts. Students are introduced to as few as four words a week.
In class, a strong singing voice earns students "magic tokens" that are exchangeable into "reward gifts" like Disney pens and hats on display in the lobby. Students can also get Mickey Mouse book bags as well as bilingual books, flashcards and CDs that feature Disney characters, much of them otherwise unavailable in China.
Considered as a school only, Disney English will likely take years to offer meaningful heft to the entertainment giant, which recorded $37.8 billion in revenue last year. Disney declined to reveal the school's revenue.
English First SV, a Sweden-based company with the most extensive network of children's schools in China, says it uses the program as a loss leader to feed its lucrative adult schools and overseas study programs. "When we look at just the kids' business, it hasn't made a dime in 15 years," says English First President Philip Hult.
Regardless of its financial outlook, Disney English appears to be a hit with members of China's burgeoning middle class. After a recent Monday-evening class, 5-year-old Zang Siqi rushes toward her mother, eager to show off a white rocket she has made out of paper, a Snow White sticker in its nose cone.
The girl's mother, Li Ruchen, says she enrolled her daughter in twice-a-week Disney English classes for roughly $1,000 a year because she wants the girl to be "international" and Disney is a "familiar and trustworthy brand."
In the family's sport-utility vehicle on the way home, a Disney English CD plays over the sound system. Arriving at the family's 30th-floor apartment, young QiQi, as she is called by her parents, eagerly directs a visitor toward a notable decoration: a tiny Cinderella sticker on a glass cabinet in the dining room. Next to the girl's Disney English backpack, her mother sets down instruction books from the school featuring the Buzz Lightyear character from "Toy Story" on the cover, including one titled, "Whose Toy Is This?"
Soon, QiQi and her parents are gathered around a dining table -- her colorings of Ariel the Little Mermaid displayed underneath a plate of glass -- and gripping yellow Disney English playing cards.
Following the girl's daily diving lessons, her parents say they usually surf onto Disney's Internet "parent portal" with their daughter, where Piglet and other Winnie the Pooh characters help her brush up on vocabulary.
Later, after QiQi goes to bed, the parents stay online to see what the teacher says about the girl's progress in class, sometimes listening to recordings of her class sessions. "We can't step into the class so it's a good way to understand what she learned," Ms. Li says.