Language schools are doing well despite the challenging times

  • 2011-08-31
  • By Marta Zila

Einars Neija says that student numbers are again growing.

RIGA - Today’s reality is that the world is becoming a rather challenging place to live in. Countries are more interconnected than ever, with the cultures, languages and economies becoming one big melting pot. The emergence of a global marketplace, mobility and diffusion of information, emphasize the need for modern man to adapt and grow, just as the world around us is changing and growing.

Nowadays, learning a second, or even a third, language has become almost a norm, especially in the Baltic States. Latvia, with its unique geographical location at the crossroads between East and West, has historically been influenced by many cultures, traditions and languages. At various times, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania and Russia have had influence over the territory of the country. Most of present-day Latvians freely communicate in Latvian and Russian, have a great command of English, and some knowledge of German.

One of the leaders on the Latvian language school market, Skrivanek, is also one of the largest language agencies in Central and Eastern Europe. The company has been operating in the Czech Republic since 1994 and entered the Latvian market in 2003. Initially, the main focus of Skrivanek was providing translations and interpreting services, but in 2007 the company decided to open a language school.

“The decision to go in this direction came naturally,” says Einars Neija, director of Skrivanek Language School. “Our position in the Latvian translation and interpreting market segment was strong. We felt growing interest from our clients and believed that we are able to capitalize on our extensive expertise and knowledge of the industry to successfully launch this business direction.” 

According to Neija, the start was rather difficult, but with time the client base grew and now the company caters to all types of customers, from preschoolers to the heads of major Latvian corporations.
“The two years of crisis could be felt in Latvia very acutely, and Skrivanek was not an exception,” says Neija. “The number of clients diminished considerably, and it was not easy to stay afloat.”  However, the situation improved since the fall of 2010, and now the number of clients is slowly, but sustainably, growing.

A large share of Skrivanek’s business comes from corporate clients. “Working with businesses is always a challenge,” comments Neija. “Each of our corporate clients is operating in its own industry, which means that the terminology and the approach to the teaching process should be very specific in each individual case.”
English is the most popular language among the languages that the school is offering, probably because many Latvians are working, or have their family members, working abroad. The language schools expected increased demand for German since that country opened its borders for workers from Latvia not so long ago, but so far the expectations have by far exceeded demand.

Individual approach, small class sizes and strong professional teachers are the factors helping Skrivanek weather the difficult times and grow. There is strong competition in the language school sector in Latvia, and especially in the capital city Riga.
Goethe Institute is specializing in teaching German, and as a part of the worldwide Goethe Institut franchise has a strong appeal to the Latvians that are planning to work or study in Germany.

Maija Briede, a university student who will be working as an intern for a Frankfurt-based bank for four months in 2012, thinks that it might be a good idea to study at the school, which is a part of an internationally renowned brand. “I am considering quite a number of options in Riga,” Briede says, sharing her experiences in this interview. “I like Goethe Institute because I looked at the Web site of their parent company in Germany and learned that they have offices all over the world, from Melbourne to Bologna. On the other hand, their teachers are from Latvia, and in this sense they are just like any other good language school in Riga.”

Before making her final decision, Briede will personally visit the schools on her shortlist to talk to the staff and the teachers. “I want to get a feel for the atmosphere in the place; this is very important to me,” she says. “I plan to study hard and, therefore, believe that the teachers should be strict and professional; on the other hand, I would like to learn from people who really care about their students and their progress.” 

“The friendly and positive atmosphere of Skrivanek is an essential part of our teaching method,” says Neija. “The teachers really care about the students and often a personal bond is established between the lecturer and the group, as well as the students in class. A lot of times a teacher will stay after class to explain difficult material to the students, or communicate with them via email to help with particularly challenging homework. We have a lot of grown-ups who come to us year after year to improve their language skills, but also to be among fellow students who work together and become friends. It is very touching to see grown people who come to us in the beginning of their course as they would come to school – with the same type of positive and friendly attitude.” 

According to Neija, upholding high service standards is very important to succeed and win customers in Latvia. “We are holders of the ISO certificate and are going through their audit every year. This, of course, requires time and financial investments, but we call it an investment well made and are proud that our quality management practices are at a world-standard level.”

One of the clear leaders in Riga, Skrivanek, however, has no immediate plans to expand to the regions.  “If this happens, it will happen organically,” says Neija. “Establishing a presence in Daugavpils or Liepaja would require considerable effort and investment. Smaller and less known companies usually have an upper hand outside of the capital, as they have worked in the towns for so long and are very well known to the locals. Of course, we are dreaming of growing and expanding. For now it’s just a dream, but let’s see what the future brings.”