British Columbia

Language schools are being forced to close permanently due to COVID-19

International travel restrictions mean there are not enough students to keep open schools that teach English as a second language.

ESL industry in B.C. worth $500M, employs 1,800 people, says industry body

This year's Inlingua Vancouver graduates will be the last ever as the language school can no longer afford to stay in business after almost 20 years. (inlingua Vancouver/Instagram)

A longstanding B.C. language school has been forced to shut down permanently because it simply doesn't have any students to teach.

International travel restrictions due to COVID-19 means Inlingua Vancouver, which usually enrolls about 200 foreign students, no longer has enough paying pupils to stay afloat. The last day of classes was May 29 and the school, which is located in downtown Vancouver and opened in 2001, will not be opening again.

"It's heartbreaking," said director of studies Lester Bergquist, who has worked at the school for 10 years.

He said as soon as travel restrictions were introduced in March, the usual stream of students to the school stopped. Almost all of the students at Inlingua Vancouver were foreign nationals learning English as a second language (ESL), many of whom wished to return to their home countries while they still could.

According to Bergquist, attendance soon dwindled to 60 students and the writing was on the wall that no more would be coming anytime soon for future sessions.

Bergquist said instructors initially tried in March to move courses online but the method was not that effective for language learners who need ample time with teachers to practice speaking.

He estimates students spend 80 per cent of in-class time speaking aloud, whereas that drops to about 5 per cent during an online lesson.

The struggle to stay in business was not unique to Inlingua. Many international schools are feeling the brunt of travel bans.

Global Village Vancouver, another ESL school in the city's downtown core, is also closing in June. A letter posted on the school's social media platforms from president and CEO Paul Maher laid the blame on the pandemic's impact on travel.

Paula Jamieson, president and CEO of Global Village Victoria, which remains open, told CBC's On The Island she estimates up to 90 per cent of language schools could close because they can't make rent.

According to Languages Canada, which represents more than 210 language education programs across the country, the ESL industry in B.C. accounted for about $500 million a year in 2018, attracted almost half a million students, and employed more than 1,800 people.

Bergquist said school owners did what they could using the government wage subsidy program to try to employ its teachers — who have at least five years of experience — for as long as possible. 

"These are good teachers that I think are all being forced to consider a change of industry right now," said Bergquist.

With files from The Early Edition

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