INTRODUCTION: Idioms, common expressions, words to use in business situations (and words to avoid!), the right way to use negative phrases, and even how to answer the telephone – many of these important language lessons aren’t taught in the classroom. In fact, most of the time the best way to learn these aspects of a language is to live in the country where that language is spoken daily, and where you’ll have to speak it, too. For people learning English as a second language, traveling to an English-speaking country isn’t always an option. Fortunately, there are sites like www.engVid.com, where you can find hundreds of mini-lessons on these tricky aspects of English in free videos taught by English speakers living in Canada, the United States, and Britain. We talked to the website’s founder, Joshua Kostka, about his motivation for providing this useful resource.
UV: You live in Ontario, where about 15% of the population prefers to speak French rather than English – and in neighboring Quebec, French is the official language. Did you have to learn another language when you were growing up? Did you choose to learn a second (or third) language as an adult?
Well, the bilingual aspect of Canada is I think overstated. People in most parts of the US hear and encounter Spanish more often than I do French in Toronto.
Speaking personally, though I was born in Canada, my family left when I was 10, and I lived abroad until returning to Canada in my early 20s. My experience of having to learn another language as an adolescent definitely informs my vision for the site. I know first-hand what it’s like to be a new immigrant, to not understand what people are saying or what’s going on around me. More than anything, I know the feeling of being silenced because of an inability to confidently and correctly express myself in the language. It’s not a good feeling, nor is it healthy, to have words inside you that cannot get out. That’s the reason I ask the teachers to focus quite often on practical speaking skills and soft skills. Most people who try can eventually understand another language, but having the ability to speak that language without hesitation is what puts a person on the same level as his/her native speaker peers.
I’m learning Spanish in my spare time now, but I don’t really think learning English is comparable to learning other languages. Most people learning English as adults have had some amount of English in their lives already. How much varies from place to place, but as the dominant language of the last century at least, English is around. That’s why we can teach English to people in English. Much of the audience understands enough English to get at least the gist of the lessons, even if they don’t yet know even the most basic grammatical structures.
UV: You graduated with an honors degree in English literature. Did your experience with language and literature motivate you to start the engVid site?
Probably not in the way you’re thinking, but you might say so. I had four years at university, during which I could indulge myself in the type of humanities education that I expect won’t be around too much longer. I got a broad base of liberal arts knowledge, and developed the skills to analyze and thus deepen my appreciation of those works of narrative I find moving. None of this is useful though when you’re 25 and trying to figure out a career.
So as many do, I ended up travelling for a bit, backpacking in Asia. I met so many people in India, Laos, Cambodia, and other countries in the region, for whom English was the one thing that could immeasurably improve their lives. For so many of these people, English is what can get them out of the slums, out of abject poverty. For the first time, I understood what a fundamental advantage I had been given by being born in an English-speaking country. At the same time, I saw YouTube, which was just beginning its ascent at the time, as a good tool to use to not only give people educational material to which they wouldn’t otherwise have access, but to give them material that was more useful, more direct, and more practical than what they might get in school, if they were even lucky enough to be taught English in school. My mother had taught English at the corporate level, and ran an ESL business while I was growing up, so I had quite a bit of knowledge about the industry. When I got back to Canada, I worked with her to develop a style of lesson video that would be focused, engaging, and consumable in small segments. It was also important that the format of the lessons be something we could create relatively quickly. No fancy animation or things like that, because I strongly believe that a library of 30 English lesson videos wouldn’t be that useful. 300, though – that’s useful. And when we get to 3000, that’ll be really useful.
UV: The videos on the website cover a wide range of topics related to learning English, including pronunciation guides, business English phrases, and preparation for important exams like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Although you have a “vocabulary” lesson category as well, isn’t vocabulary the key to learning a language?
In the sense that you can’t learn the language without knowing words, clearly learning vocabulary is the core of learning any language. Our content reflects this – vocabulary is the category in which we’ve produced the most lesson videos, and lessons filed under some of the other categories on the site, like slang or business English, are often just more specialized forms of vocabulary lessons. We provide the categorization on the site for viewer convenience, but the fact is that most lessons involve learning some grammar and usage, some vocabulary, pronunciation dos and don’ts, comprehension in the form of learning how words are actually encountered in real life, and so on. Depending on the viewer’s level of English, he/she might not catch everything or even retain the main lesson taught. It doesn’t matter – they are improving just by watching and listening actively and trying to parse and process everything to the best of their abilities.
UV: Students can use the English Lesson Finder to search for video lessons by difficulty level and topic, and even search for specific teachers. If someone is a first-time visitor to the site, where do you recommend they start?
Something that’s both a strength and a weakness of EngVid is that our lessons are not presented in any given order. Though new users might find this scary, what it actually means is that you can get on the site, watch any of our almost 800 videos, and get a complete lesson. Lessons on vocabulary or expressions are good places to start, because they usually don’t require extensive knowledge of grammar. Sometimes these lessons are really specific, and sometimes they are general, but anyone who wants to improve his/her English can devote 15 minutes to watching one of the lessons, committing the information to memory, and taking the accompanying quiz. I actually recommend that viewers do the quiz the day after they watch the video, to make sure the knowledge has been retained. Over time, all these smaller chunks of knowledge add up to greater proficiency and confidence in using English.
UV: You’re constantly adding new lessons to the site, and you also provide printable documents for offline study. What are your plans for the website in 2015?
The main focus has been, and will continue to be, creating a large library of videos for people to watch. We have around 800 video lessons now, and are currently adding close to 200 new ones per year. In addition to the videos, the site will be growing in several ways. A new teacher will be joining early in the year. Her videos are very clear and are primarily aimed at beginners. We will also be updating our site; the most important addition will be giving users the ability to easily track which videos they’ve watched and to keep a record of their quiz scores.
Our biggest project for 2015, though, is a completely new section of full courses in English, covering large areas from start to finish. In addition to providing a more linear, guided learning path for students, these courses will include more supplementary and reference material than our normal English lessons. So lots to look forward to.
Cross-posted on the Ultimate Vocabulary blog.
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