From the field: Where Swiss students are going in 2015 and why

Of the roughly 40,000 Swiss students who go abroad to study every year, the vast majority choose language programmes. Studying a language in another country is a longstanding tradition among Swiss nationals, who are used to living in a country with four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romanic), and where English has always been in demand.

We are pleased to present video excerpts today from a feature interview with Mark Winkler, founder and CEO of Media Touristik AG and past-president of the Swiss Association of Language Travel Agents (SALTA). Mr Winkler explains that going abroad to learn a language is not just the purview of university students and certain classes; it is a pursuit embarked upon by Swiss of all classes, professions, and ages.

As much as English remains a popular language for Swiss to go abroad to learn, demand is evident for at least half a dozen other languages, which Mr Winkler explains in the following videos.

A nation of diverse peoples

Roughly 99% of Swiss speak either French, German, or Italian, but the prevalence of each changes according to region:

  • In the east, north, and centre is the German region (Deutschschweiz), and Swiss-German is the most commonly spoken language in Switzerland (roughly 65%);
  • In the west is the French area (la Romandie), and Swiss-French is the second most spoken language (roughly 22%);
  • In the south is the Italian area, (Svizzera italiana), and Swiss-Italian is a distant third with roughly 8% speaking this language.

Mr Winkler notes that there is overlap between the languages, however: for example, most French-speaking Swiss speak at least a little German and vice versa. And English registers as well, with 4.6% of the population speaking this lingua franca.

Increasingly, these languages are now not the only ones spoken in Switzerland, since the country is home to a large proportion of immigrants (22.8% of the overall population, compared to the European Union average of 7%). In a presentation at the ICEF 2014 Berlin Workshop, Mr Winkler outlined the languages that accompany the various immigrant groups in Switzerland:

  • Portuguese (3.4%);
  • Albanian (2.6%);
  • Serbian/Croatian (2.5%);
  • Spanish (2.2%);
  • Turkish (1.2%).

These relatively new immigrant populations are less interested in study abroad, Mr Winkler says; when they do leave the country it is often to visit friends and family in the countries they moved from. This is expected to reflect in the overall demand for study abroad in the years ahead.

When Swiss do go abroad to study a language, Mr Winkler says the most popular choice remains English. And, he says, students want to really progress in their command of the language. They want to work hard in their studies and take exams to show their proficiency.

As Mr Winkler points out in our first video segment below, Swiss students are “demanding”: they are used to free education in Switzerland and so when it comes to paying for a study abroad course, they want it to be rigorous.

What attracts Swiss students to language courses

As we saw in the first video, Mr Winkler stresses the importance of offering language test preparation and proficiency exams. In terms of destination, he notes that there are trends that change over the years. For example, a new hot spot is Hawaii. These trends are shaped by word-of-mouth (that is, by students coming back and raving about a destination or school) as well as cost of living and exchange rates.

Internships – and even more, volunteer opportunities – are popular among Swiss students. Mr Winkler sees many students interested in learning a language and then getting out in the host country to gain experience and/or do community work in the field (he provides the example of doing a language course in Costa Rica followed by a few weeks working at a turtle breeding station). This is an interesting opportunity for language schools – the chance to extend the experience for students, visa climate permitting.

Beyond English

Many Swiss students pursuing an academic path have a strong command of English given the availability of Swiss courses taught in this language. Mr Winkler notes that because of this, there is also demand for more “exotic” study abroad language courses taught in exciting destinations. Popular new languages to learn – especially given the shape of the global economy and new balances of power – are Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Japanese. These newer choices are often accompanied by a sense of adventure: students might do one Spanish course in Mexico, then move to South American countries for more courses and experiences.

When Swiss students stay closer to home for language study, say in Germany, Italy, or France, Mr Winkler says that about 80% choose courses of short duration (e.g., two weeks in the summer).

Changing demographics

Most Swiss who travel abroad for language studies are not immigrants, and these Swiss represent an ageing population. The number of young Swiss interested in language study abroad will decrease in the coming years, but Mr Winkler highlights a corresponding opportunity for language providers: the 50+ market (that is, students aged 50-70).

Language providers hoping to host older Swiss, however, will have to recognise the special needs of this demographic. These are people interested in recreational and cultural activities as much as language study – they want a whole “package.” Mr Winkler provides an example: studying in the day, then going to the theatre in London in the evening, perhaps with a backstage pass.

Because they are older, thought must also be given to accommodation. A hotel stay would make a language programme too costly for many older people, but at the same time, these students couldn’t just be set up in a family home with a shared bathroom used by all family members. An ensuite bathroom and a little more privacy might be the solution in this case, says Mr Winkler.

About language travel agencies in Switzerland

Mr Winkler’s agency, Media Touristik AG, is one of the leading agencies in the Swiss language travel market; it comprises four brands: follow me, globo-study, Linguista, and praktikum.ch.

Media Touristik is one of ten members of the Swiss Association of Language Travel Agents (SALTA), whose membership is estimated to account for as much as 70% of the Swiss language travel agency market. Switzerland is also home to a second agent association: Leading Independent Language Agencies of Switzerland (LILAS).

All told, there are more than 50 official language travel agencies in Switzerland, and, Mr Winkler estimates, as many as 1,000 distinct points of sale throughout the country. “Switzerland is a highly competitive, mature market,” he concludes.



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