- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

I am intrigued by what might be called cottage-industry globalization, perhaps because I just ran into an example.

Globalization has two aspects. One is the rapid shifting of high-tech work — software development, circuit design — to India and China. The other is the use of technology to outsource nontechnical jobs.

Recently, I introduced a friend, a bright computer type in Northern Virginia, to a Mexican woman who teaches Spanish to foreigners in Mexico. Woody had gone to Mexico as a tourist, loved it and decided he wanted to learn Spanish. Back in Virginia, the lowest price he could find for one-on-one instruction was $50 an hour. Not good.

I suggested that he study with Violeta by telephone. Spanish teachers are not held to be of great value in Mexico, and so they earn maybe $5 an hour. Well, thought I with great mathematical agility, if she charged him $15, she would be tripling her rates and he, cutting his cost by two-thirds. It sounded like a business proposition to me.

Her husband, an American, had a Vonage Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone account that allows cheap calling. It also lets its customers get phone numbers in as many area codes in the United States as they choose, at five dollars a month each. If the husband got a 703 number, Violeta would be a local call for Woody, and she would just add the cost to her charges.

For the idea to work for other than friends, a means of international payment was needed. PayPal seemed the easiest, avoiding the hazards of international mail. The student could send her a month’s tuition, and she could check online to verify that it had arrived. Easy.

The next problem was the textbook. It turned out that her favorite was available at Amazon.com. This allowed the student to order it on his own, removing the administrative burden from her.

Homework? Her custom was to print out assignments on her computer and give them to students. E-mailing them was no more difficult, and the student could e-mail back the completed assignments. There was no important difference.

Finally, Spanish keyboards can be bought and Microsoft Word can be set to accept Spanish input. The spelling-checker works for Spanish too.

It was worth a try. A month later, Woody reported himself delighted. It worked even though, as is her custom, she spoke no English whatsoever with him. This is important, since there are many more educated, potentially excellent teachers around the world who don’t speak English than who do.

Woody did say that it was like pulling teeth. I believe him. Vi is relentless in forcing the student to keep talking. In some things, there are no shortcuts. Languages are one.

It seems to me that whenever cheap VOIP telephony is available, and the text can be ordered online, language instruction is ripe for outsourcing. For economic reasons, it probably would not be cheap for, say, French, since prices are at American levels in France. But for Spanish, Hindustani, Chinese, perhaps Russian, and so on, it would be attractive.

The flexibility appeals. If you lived in a cabin in remote Wyoming, as long as you had broadband, you could study Spanish as well as if you lived in a city. And of course for practice, countless Spanish stations, such as the station of the University of Guadalajara, transmit over the Internet.

Now, if you are a teacher of languages in America, this isn’t great news. If you are a student, it is or would be if the service became widely available. Is there any good reason why it shouldn’t?

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