OpenEnglish: Connecting Latin America with native English teachers

Learning a second language is a need in today's globalized world. Teaching a language has traditionally required physical assets and local teachers. Can this model be improved? OpenEnglish says yes.

Language has been a major driver of human development. Communication has enabled critical activities such as commerce, trade, and inter-regional relations. Even further, the hyper-connectedness created by recent globalization has greatly amplified the need for a common global language for business, sciences, politics, culture, etc. [1]

Given this trends, learning foreign languages has become critical for individuals. Studies show that a second language opens career opportunities and increases intelligence by improving memory, attention span, and reducing age-related cognitive decline. [2][3][4]

As expected, such a large need led many entrepreneurs to create services that teach foreign languages, like personalized home tutoring or collective classrooms in learning centers. In 2015, the global language learning industry size was $54.1 billion, heavily dominated by offline in-person models, which accounted for 89% of the market [5]

The traditional solution: offline learning

The traditional language teaching business model is very straightforward. Learning centers or tutors offer a combination of in-person classes plus self-study materials, which are typically printed. Students buy access to these services and materials in the hope of learning a second language.

Thus, the traditional operating model requires matching physical classrooms, local teachers, and local students. Although this model can be very effective, it does have pain points for all involved parties:

  • For students: costly/inconvenient transportation to and from classrooms, limited schedule flexibility, and reduced learning speed due insufficient language proficiency of local teachers.
  • For teachers: costly/inconvenient transportation and limited schedule flexibility.
  • For business owners: low utilization of classrooms due to students’ and teachers’ limited schedule flexibility, difficulty to find good local teachers, and capital intensity of entering new markets.

For example, Wall Street English is a major player in the language services industry, with 425 centers in 28 countries and 190,000 students [6]. The fixed and variable costs incurred to support this system are tremendous: fire insurance, cleaning services, administration overhead, etc. And all that just serve the few students located nearby an existing center! Also, finding local teachers can be tough for Wall Street English, as several governments have implemented mandatory foreign language classes at schools, leading to a shortage of available local teachers [7].

The new solution: OpenEnglish

OpenEnglish was the first online English school in Latin America. As a digital service, it solves many of the industry’s paint points by reducing need for assets, generating flexible schedules, and securing an ample supply of native language teachers for all students.

With OpenEnglish’s online platform, physical assets are a story from the past. No more classrooms are needed and, for the first time, students from all over the world can access world-class digital content. Since 2008, OpenEnglish has had over 500,000 students, with 70,000 currently active accounts [8]. OpenEnglish’s success has enabled them to raise over US$120 MM in 5 investing rounds [9].

This new business model based on video conferencing technology promise students English lessons whenever and wherever they want, with native English speakers. To do so, the operating model matches students with native English speakers located anywhere in the world. Individualized classes are available 24/7, and can be supplemented with virtual trainings that students can take at their most convenient times. [10].

OpenEnglish spread through Latin America like wildfire, thanks to a series of sarcastic online and TV adds, in its founder himself highlights the downsides of traditional learning centers, while showing the benefits of having native English speakers as teachers (most popular spots in

After models like OpenEnglish’s, students have migrated away from classrooms due to increased convenience and reduced price. Thus, total industry revenues have shrunk in the last years, and are expected to continue declining (from $54.1 Bn in 2015 to 51.9 Bn in 2020). On the flipside, digital language learning revenues are expected to grow by 8% per year. [11]

But not everything is perfect. As mentioned in the New York Times, students from online courses can have higher drop out rates as engagement is lower and it is harder for the online course to adapt to struggling students [12]. Nevertheless, as OpenEnglish still offers real time interaction with instructors, one could argue that these effects can be mitigated by one-to-one engagement. Additionally, as Eric Fredericksen from the World Economic Forum mentions, online education systems have many benefits beyond access and flexibility, such as providing a voice to every student and increasing the time frame of conversations. [13]

The future for language learning

Looking forward, OpenEnglish faces challenges and opportunities to use new technologies. For example, OpenEnglish could use virtual reality to create a more immersive experience during online classes and engage students in learning about new cultures. What stops us from virtually walking around Manhattan with our English tutor, while comfortably sitting in our couch in Latin America? This can even be done partnering with schools helping them to achieve with Government regulations.

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[1] American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (2011). Language Learning in the 21st Century: 21st Century Skills Map

[2] Does being bilingual really improves your brain?, Joe Myers, World Economic Forum,


[4] The cognitive benefits of being bilingual

[5] 2015-2020 Worldwide Digital English Market Executive Overview

[6] Company Website

[7] Opportunities abound in digital English language learning market

[8] Company website


[10] Company website

[11] 2015-2020 Worldwide Digital English Market Executive Overview

[12] Article, The trouble with online education

[13] Is online education good or bad


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Student comments on OpenEnglish: Connecting Latin America with native English teachers

  1. The role of digitization in learning foreign languages is so intriguing, and this post does a fantastic job highlighting the challenges (and benefits) of OpenEnglish.

    I am curious about whether this model is conducive more to formal language learning as opposed to colloquial language learning. For example, most secondary languages taught in secondary schools (e.g. high school) place an emphasis on grammar and vocabulary. But the usefulness appears diminished when placed in that country: the slang, and immersion in casual conversations often are more useful in being able to communicate with natives. Consider, for example, the “high drop out rates” and “lower” engagement mentioned in the post above, and the emergence and success of companies like Duolingo disrupting the Rosetta Stone model [1].

    As such, perhaps the author’s suggestion of using OpenEnglish as a supplement in the classroom is the “right” choice. This, however, will have an impact on pricing. Moreover, it will require an immense operating / strategic model shift if OpenEnglish chooses to break into the market of people who are interested in learning a new language for foreign travel.


  2. What I like the most about OpenEnglish is its scalability. By using the same platform and professors, OpenEnglish launched its services in several countries in Latin America within a few months difference, leveraging on a huge first-mover advantage. The “old” teaching model is indeed inefficient and OpenEnglish has been successfully addressing some of these opportunities, however, I wonder how the company will differentiate itself from other lower-cost competitors, such as Duolingo.
    OpenEnglish has a model that still heavily relies on the quality of professors, and the consequence of that is threefold:
    (1) it´s difficult to assess how good/bad is a professor, as most of the clients tend to rate a professor based on his or her personal skills and not necessarily on teaching skills;
    (2) there´s a global shortage of good English professors compared to the high demand of such services, leading to a limited capacity;
    (3) it´s complex to improve the quality of the services/class without clear measures of improvement and best-practices sharing.
    Duolingo, on the other hand, has been leveraging on technology and auto-learning to test and find out the best ways for people to learn languages.[i] Also, as it has been partnering with schools to implement customized services to reach a broader audience.[ii]
    So far OpenEnglish has been doing a great job by increasing the awareness of the need of learning English and by providing a more affordable high-quality option for the population, however, I´m concerned about how the company will innovate itself to maintain its current position as market leader moving forward.


  3. Thanks for the Post Katherine!
    Given the convenience and success of OpenEnglish, I would suggest that governments try and partner with them for broader and quicker adoption of english in public schools. COlombia’s Ministry of education has set important bilingual goals for 2020, but beurocracy and difficulty building knowledge has slowed down uptake in programs (see: Partnering with OpenEnglish through the digital platforms built by the MInistry of ITC ( would leveage existing infrastructure and improve uptake in bilingual studies.

    Food for thought…

  4. I like this business and would be lining up to invest my money. It’s a really elegant solution to the ennui of learning a foreign language: it reduces the hassle of traveling to and from a language class and the rigidity of a set schedule while providing personal interaction with a teacher. Personally, as someone who has tried to become fluent in another language, the most effective way is immersion. OpenEnglish provides an inexpensive option for as close of an immersive experience as possible – a one-on-one conversation with a native speaker who specializes in teaching the language.

    As a potential investor, I think this business is really limiting itself by only providing English. Given its asset-light business model, it can easily expand into other countries at a very fast pace to offer lessons for any language (like Chinese, for example). There would only be costs associated with setting up a network of quality language teachers in any given language. The “trialability” of this product would be low as anyone with a good internet connection can become a student.

    Lastly, I agree with you and Anita that using this as a supplement to foreign language education is likely the best option. However, I think that because this is a supplement tool, the target market would more affluent and OpenEnglish could charge a premium pricing to differentiate itself from non-personal language tools such as Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.

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