‘All About Wines’ is a recent EnglishPod lesson on OpenLanguage. The core dialogue takes place in a wine shop between a perplexed customer and a helpful salesperson. It’s just like a conversation you might have in a wine shop, confused about what types of wine you should bring to your boss’s party. What food are the hosts serving? Should I bring a classic full-bodied Bordeaux or a bottle of fruity and oaky Chardonnay? Better yet, the lesson doesn’t stop at teaching students how to name the main types of wine and describe their qualities. In the ‘Task’ section of the lesson, students are asked to watch a Gary Vaynerchuk video in which he tastes and reviews two Californian whites. In the video, learners learn things that savvy wine drinkers would say about a Sonoma Valley Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Their homework is to watch the video and produce a tasting summary that sums up the key language that Vaynerchuk used in the video. In crafting this lesson and many others, we merge language instruction with real world subject matter knowledge because language alone won’t help the learner succeed at the workplace. We want to help them be all-round global talents so that they can get that new job or promotion.
It’s with this in mind that we set out to create our ESL content first for China. The result is EnglishPod中国, an ESL product that aims to do exactly what I described. Within a year of its launch, it has become the no.1 language courses on iTunes China. I still meet a lot of skeptics who feel that the English learning market for China is saturated and that I am a fool to start a subscription product in this market. The purpose of the article isn’t to analyze the ESL market in China. I wanted to use this article to share some of my observations about real learners that I talk to and meet as well as my own experience learning English.
- English isn’t only a tool to communicate. Many learners of English want the experience to add an extra dimension to their identity. They want the content to plug them into North American culture, life and sensibilities. In a business English context, one might lable it soft skills. Books such as Pearson’s Market Leader does a great job at it.
- But looking beyond business soft skills, you’ll also find that students are hungry for content that tells them about real life experiences and stories of working in an international team, living an international life. You might be surprised that one of the most common questions from learners isn’t ‘HOW’ I talk to my foreign colleague or boss but ‘WHAT’ should I say to them? Often, water cooler talk is even harder than meeting room talk since you are not culturally aware and prepared as you are professionally. Yet this set of skills is so important because a lot of career advancement lies in the intangible, who you are, how you act in the everyday. At the end of the day, we all want to work with people on the same wavelength.
- Learning a new language gives one a ‘spiritual passport’ to travel around the world and gives one a plethora of new intellectual and emotional experiences. That’s always one of the most elating things about learning a new language. That’s what great ESL content should do. It should expand the learners’ horizons and connect them to a new world.
How do I curate content that meets these needs?
- The content needs to be authentic and alive, not something that can only be produced by writers and language teachers working for established publishers. In many ways, the barrier of traditional publishing has been removed by web 2.0. It also means that when curating content, we can use a huge variety of resources to help us. For example, when the lesson is about choosing a bottle of wine, I can use one of the most popular wine personalities Gary Vayernerchuk to help students. If the lesson is about marketing strategy, I might use classic HBR case studies to supplement my core content.
- Content creators have to have broad perspectives. Don’t think of yourself just as a teacher or writer, think of yourself as a curator. You need to be what your learners aspire to be. Of course, you also need to know what they aspire to. That’s why I found the best content team tends to be a mix of native English speakers and those who have successfully learned English as adults. The mix makes content relatable, authentic and often add the X factor.
- Creating content that inherently has a cultural angle. One of the things that I hear most from EnglishPod中国 learners is that they love the cultural insights in the lessons. A lot of people ask ‘how do you do it?’ I am not sure if this is something that we labor at. Rather, I think the cultural insights are results of what the team is made of. The way they write and explain the content is infused with their own personal experiences learning the language and culture. They can look at things from both angles. What’s obvious for the native language speaker might be explored by the target language learner and developed into valuable teaching moments and vice versa. That’s life experience that you can’t script.
These are just some of my observations curating content for students learning English in China. I truly believe that we live in such an exciting time to create and publish content that speaks to the learners, connects with them and help them be truly global citizens.