Invest China - Special Report

Bad English? Take Classes Online

Michael Kearns|Deputy Head of News, CNBC Asia Pacific

It’s become something of an online sport for English-speakers in Asia. Find some bad English on signs, T-shirts, menus — wherever — post it on the internet, and let the giggles begin.

Badly-spelt sign
Janet Fekete | Workbook Stock | Getty Images

With such gems as ‘Cold Cats Selection’ (a card at a hotel buffet in Taiwan beside the ham and salami) or ‘Get an electric shock carefully’ (a warning about a potentially lethal fence at a Chinese zoo), websites such as or EngrishFunny certainly have no shortage of material to keep the hilarity coming.

But where some see pure comedic gold, others see a gold mine. The market for online English education is estimated to be worth $100 billion, with Asia, especially China, making up a sizeable piece of that. This month, two online education companies, Beijing-based Idapted and US firm Eleutian Technology, merged to make a bigger push into this fast growing and increasingly competitive space. The other players they’ll be taking on include New Oriental, ChinaEdu and China Distance Education.

"In short, we are able to provide top-quality English teachers to students, either in a group or individual setting, anywhere in the world," wrote Adrian Li, Eleutian's general manager for China, in response to email questions from Li says this new world of English instruction on demand has been "made possible by advances in technology and communications that are revolutionizing the way English is and will be taught."

Historically, English instruction in Asia has been school-based and one of the challenges has been finding a steady supply of quality teachers willing to hop on a plane bound for an exotic location. That has long been a fall back for North American university graduates who still haven't figured out what they want to do with their lives. But now would-be teachers can skip the flight and just power up their computers and webcams to give face-to-face instruction to students in Asia.

Some companies say it's raised the standard of teachers by broadening the pool of recruits to include those not up for the foreign adventure.

Illustration of man learning English using personal computer
DAJ | Getty Images

"Our teachers are a combination of US certified public school teachers and highly certified, work-at-home paraprofessional trainers," notes Li of Eleutian. His company recruits prospective teachers on its website, and requires them to go through a certification process.

While Eleutian points to success in South Korea, and has ambitions in southeast Asia, it's clear China is the land of plenty for the company and its rivals. It's often said there are 300 million English speakers, or about a quarter of the population, in China. But that number is frequently criticized as inflated, by only taking into account all those trying to learn English, rather than those who are actually competent in speaking and writing it as a second language. Add to that a widely recognized shortage of good English teachers in Chinese schools, and the fact that China is the largest internet market in the world with 420 million users, and you’ve got fertile ground for digital English teaching opportunities.

But the technological advances have also created problems for the growing list of companies trying to cash in on this market – mainly, that the technology is increasingly widely available and relatively affordable. One site — English, Baby! — even offers its instruction for free, operating as a quasi-social network by hooking up prospective students with teachers, and using pop culture (What did Justin Timberlake mean when he said ‘The buck stops with me’?) to teach the meaning of English slang sayings. Those behind the site view teaching English as more of a mission than a money-making venture.

“We work on this site day after day because we believe the English language can help make the world a more peaceful place,” says the site’s mission statement. “Using English as a common language helps people from different countries communicate and better understand each other. The more we understand, the better off we are.”

When it comes to free classes, those who are trying to sell online English instruction will likely say you get what you pay for. But history offers no shortage of entrepreneurs, who, when gazing at China, have had the dollar signs in their eyes vanish without realizing their much hoped for enormous returns. And those seeking their fortunes in online English education should take note. As one badly translated sign on a faulty window posted on Engrish Funny warns: Be careful, ‘Because there is a possibility you get hurt.’ And for some businesses that could be no laughing matter.

- Reuters contributed to this report.