1. Your web site, English Club, is full of a variety of materials for ESL students and teachers. You have forums, videos, games, quizzes, lessons, and much more. What resources on your site are the most popular?
The grammar pages easily get the most visits.
As you say, there are a great many other pages, many of them interactive and much more "fun", and they also get a lot of visits, but grammar seems to be what attracts the greatest numbers.
After that, the most popular resources are still the "skills" - the two other micro-skills: vocabulary and pronunciation, and then the macro-skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
That seems to reflect a very traditional approach to learning language, but there are other more communicative or interactive resources like forums, blogs, videos, games and so on that do get considerable traffic, just not quite as much as the skills.
2. You started English Club 13 years ago. What motivated you to start this online English community?
It's difficult to talk about it like that all those years ago. First of all, the concept of "online community" didn't really exist - at least not as far as I knew.
So I wasn't thinking of it so much as a "community", but I just saw the Internet - which I'd only just "discovered" - as an incredible way to disseminate information and learning resources freely and fairly worldwide, at least to anyone with Internet access, which also wasn't a given in those days. The community aspect came along later, though admittedly quite quickly.
But in terms of motivation, what did it for me was simply that I was already teaching - and spending ages like all teachers creating materials and lesson plans - and I suddenly found this virtually "free" technology that allowed one to spread material to anyone who wanted to look at it instead of a handful of students in class.
3. Do you have a favorite aspect of English Club?
That's like asking, "Do you have a favorite child?" :)I guess there are aspects that grab my attention for a while more than others, especially when we're starting something new like the Reference Section with idioms, sayings, slang etc, or The Learning English Video Project. But then we move on to something new and my attention gets turned elsewhere - for a while.
I'd been wanting to get some good original video material on EnglishClub for some time, and it grew out of another film project ("Talking TEFL" - for teachers) that filmmaker Daniel Emmerson made and we sponsored.
The idea behind The Learning English Video Project was to follow and interview people learning and teaching English around the world, and to create a package that would include subtitles, transcripts, vocabulary, self-study exercises and worksheets for teachers.
It covers 5 continents and 7 countries. Judging from the feedback, it is being very well received.
One thing that learners say is that it gives them more confidence, seeing how other learners approach the English language and hearing their thoughts, fears, aims, and tips.
Actually, there are - or will be - seven short films in all, and they're about 15 minutes each. People can leave comments on each film and virtually all the comments have been extremely positive, which is extremely gratifying as a lot of work has been put into the project by many people from Daniel as the director to Matt Errey as production consultant and Liz Regan and Tara Benwell who produce the learning and teaching resources that go with each film.
It's all free, like the rest of EnglishClub, and it hasn't been made on a shoestring, so it's fortunate that it's proving extremely popular. People can watch it online or download it to their computers (which teachers love for classroom use). They can even stick it on their own websites. We'll be releasing the fifth film - called “Insights from China” - soon, followed by Brazil and the UK, which will be the final one of the series. Then we'll have a breather and see what comes next :)
5. Short of moving to another country, what advice would you give someone who wants to learn a second language?
I'm always staggered by the quality of many learners' English - or other second language - even though they've never been out of their own country. And even though we normally say that "conversation" (listening and speaking) is so important, I've realised from meeting and communicating with many learners around the world that actually reading and writing is often the way they do it, usually along with grammar.
Reading gives you the power to self-teach, which is crucial. It also opens the door to a lot of vocabulary, and imprints it on the mind.
Writing lets you practice and experiment. And that's where the Internet can be advantageous with forums, blogs, chatrooms etc, so that rather than writing for yourself you can get immediate feedback from others, whether learners or teachers. You can also feed off the writing of others in those forums and blogs and so on.
Just the other day, I was talking to a Vietnamese student who told me she'd learned so much from using the EnglishClub forums that it improved her *speaking*. She thought that was probably because it helped her vocabulary and gave her more confidence. This is someone who speaks excellent English, has never been out of Vietnam, and has hardly ever spoken to a native English speaker.
6. If an ESL student wants to become fluent in English, how important is it for him to study English grammar?
That's a good question and goes right back to the first one in a way. From EnglishClub's statistics it seems that many people *believe* it's important to study grammar. But really it probably depends on the way that person likes to learn.
I personally like grammar, and I know it helped me in learning other languages. But it doesn't necessarily have to be a traditional grammar method. People can learn grammar without even realizing it.
There are also original or exciting approaches to learning grammar - like the sentence diagramming on your site - or games and quizzes that make grammar fun. One way or another, you've got to pick up grammar, but if someone hates the idea of "studying" grammar and prefers other methods, that's fine by me. :)
7. Have you noticed any aspects of English grammar to be especially difficult for ESL students to learn?
My impression is that tense gives the most trouble, though that does depend on the learner's first language. Some languages have tenses similar to English while others have almost no concept of tense at all. In the latter case, tense can be a real issue.
8. Random Question: What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
That's another of those favorite child questions.
I like everywhere I go. There's always something different, different traditions and cultures. So wherever you go is going to be interesting. But at the end of the day, there's one thing that's the same everywhere in the world - and that's people! We're all the same, and we all have the same aspirations, concerns, desires, needs etc. On the surface we may seem different, but underneath we're all the same.
9. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think is important or worth talking about?
I think "learning not teaching" is important, and well worth talking about.
The good student is proactive in learning and feels responsible for his or her own learning rather than waiting for a teacher to pump something in.
The good teacher is simply a facilitator, someone who helps the student understand what s/he already knows - that's if you believe in the origin of the word "to educate", which in its Latin form meant "to lead out".
And one other thing I’d say is “learning by doing”, which in a way is the fundamental concept behind EnglishClub. I always make the point that EnglishClub is not an English course, and doesn’t compete with courses or schools – they have their own place and there’s plenty of room for everyone. It’s a “club” where you can feel at home and learn by doing whatever you like.
And if I may, I'd like to add how important all the moderators past and present on EnglishClub Forums have been, and say an eternal word of thanks to Alan Bunyan who voluntarily and single-handedly answers thousands of grammar questions on our Grammar Help Desk.