SHANGHAI (Reuters) - “Do you want a snack?” smiling Chinese children ask each other at a Disney English Learning Center in Shanghai in slight lilting American accents.
These five to seven year-olds learning English with Disney characters such as the AristoCats are the product of a highly successful China branding strategy for the firm that gave the world Mickey Mouse and Snow White.
Pioneered for the Chinese market, the Walt Disney Company opened its first English language center in Shanghai in 2008 and has since expanded to 14 such centers on the mainland.
Using touchscreen boards, props, games and online media, each center teaches English to children between two and 12.
“When the words appear on the big screen, the teachers will say ‘Go’and they will tell you what they want. When you reach for the correct object, the screen will say “You have won!” said Paul He, 5, on the pleasure of learning at the center.
Overall, Disney’s foray into the China market has been mixed. Its Hong Kong Disneyland park reported a loss last year, while the firm is still in final talks with Shanghai’s municipal government over a Shanghai Disneyland after the park received central government approval late last year.
Its English language business venture however, has been a resounding success as enrolment numbers soar and Disney plans to double the number of schools on the mainland in a year.
“Here in China, parents place a huge value on education. It is up there as one of the top focuses and top investments that parents’ make along with probably health care,” said Andrew Sugerman, general manager of Disney English.
So far, Disney English has 10 centers in Shanghai and four in Beijing, with plans to expand the program to China’s tier-two and tier-three cities.
“It’s been very positive both in terms of our enrolment figures and the responses we’ve heard from parents. We have enrolled several thousand since 2008 and are expecting triple digit growth into next year,” Sugerman said.
English standards in China have remained poor despite compulsory English education in schools. Most lessons are taught in Mandarin and Chinese children speak Mandarin at home.
Yet, with China’s rapid economic development, there has been a drive for English-language education, especially in the big cities, Shanghai and Beijing.
Additional reporting by Royston Chan