Here’s an interview we recorded between a couple of English teachers that many of you may know. Rachel has a fantastic channel on YouTube teaching English pronunciation and Jason also has a fantastic channel where he teaches using rhyme, rhythm and raps.
An interview with Rachel of Rachel’s English transcript
Jason finds out how Rachel began her wonderful ‘Rachel’s English’ website
Rachel, it’s so nice to be sitting down with you to talk. I met you once in “real life.”
But like many people, I feel like I know you from seeing your videos and following you. I have a lot of respect for your work.
And I’m so happy to have the chance to talk to you.I guess the first thing I want to ask, and I know a lot of people are interested in, is how did you get into teaching in the first place, was it English as a foreign language or a second language, was it something else and then, how did that connect or evolve into teaching pronunciation?
Yeah, well, I think it was a bit of an unusual path. I did teach a little bit of ESL but mostly Rachel’s English grew out of something totally different, which was, I went to school for opera singing.
I have a Masters of Music in Opera Performance. And so through that I was getting really connected to this part of my body.
So it was pronunciation first, in a sense, because you had this background in opera.
Yeah, the ESL work that I did was useful but I don’t think it actually is related at all to the Rachel’s English thing that I’m doing even though I did have that experience. So, mostly it grew out of myself singing in other languages. And so I was studying the pronunciation specifically and the phonetics of Italian, French, German, English for the stage; I had studied Spanish. So, there was that, my relationship to learning the pronunciation of other languages. But maybe even more so, it was spending a decade really focusing on breath and you know tongue placement and these kinds of things. And I think that gave me a really clear language to talk about pronunciation for other people.
Did you have a language teacher helping you with that or, and a music teacher, or were you learning the pronunciation of the languages through the music?
It was in a class that specifically for “Diction for Singers”; so it was always related to the goal of singing for the stage. And it was focused on pronunciation and not somuch the languages, although I the did take a semester of Italian, a year of German, and a semester of French.
So you almost had no choice; they focused you on pronunciation.
Yeah, they did, because, you know, if you only have one year and you need to get all of these things under your belt, then that’s what’s the most important; because as a singer you can memorize a translation and, you know, the feeling of what goes where, but in order to sell it, you have to really sound like you know what you’re saying.
And you were teaching English during that time or were you’d taught before?
I did teach English as a second language a little bit during that time at a place in Boston were all of my students were Korean and it was mostly one-on-one or two-on-one, thirty minute sessions, and I really loved it. I think the rhythm of the language is so important, and the melody. And for me, having the background in singing has been really helpful for that, partially because singing is rhythm and is melody, but also I think I developed an ear through that for when I hear someone do something, I can imitate it quite well. And then I can find out what needs to be changed. So, often with students, I’ll imitate, think what needs to shift, and then be able to articulate that to them, for their pronunciation.
That’s interesting. And do they know you’re doing that or is this your best kept secret you’re revealing right now?
They do they know because they’ll be talking and I’ll say “hold on,” and then I’ll do it myself and I’ll say, okay your tongue needs to make whatever adjustment.
I do that actually with grammar and vocabulary, if something’s high frequency, and I’ll kind of tune in to the collective use of English from listening but I don’t have that gift with pronunciation; so that’s great.
For the W consonant, the tongue tip is down here, and the back part of the tongue stretches up, so the tongue stretches this way. Ww, ww, wow. For the R consonant, the back part of the tongue does stretch up, here towards the middle part of the roof of the mouth. The front part of the tongue pulls back. So, with the W, the tongue is stretching. With the R, the tongue is sort of pulling up into itself.
I think I just have a real interest in the human voice and how we produce sounds,and vocal health, and this kind of thing.
So that’s where my interest lies, not so much in even teaching a language, or, I mean, certainly not grammar! Sometimes teachers will correct my grammar in videos because it’s not always
It’s all about your passion; follow your passion.
That’s right. And so, like, pronunciation and the human voice, that’s where it is for me.
So what happened as far as getting your work up on YouTube? Did you first imagine putting a video of yourself up there and reaching just your students or more students?
No, actually, I didn’t have students when I first started the videos. I first started the videos when I was living in Germany and I was studying at a language institute there, so most of the people that in as in contact with were not American and also were not German: they were from all over the world studying German. And so I had a friend there from Turkey. And he was interested in American English because Hollywood is such a great exporter of American English, and wanted to sound more American. So we just played around a littlebit with a few of the sounds, and I was telling him, you know, what his tongue should be doing and this kind of thing. And he was like, wow, you’re really good at that. And I thought: hmm, idea! Actually, in undergrad, I studied computer science and in order to keep that skill set going, I had been wanting to make a website; I just didn’t really have a topic yet. But I knew that was something that I wanted to create and so when he told me he thought I was good at that, I thought, maybe that’s my idea. And so I made a few videos, put them on YouTube, connected them to a website, and just went from there.
And how, what was the reaction at first?
Nothing! There was no reaction for a long
Well, I wasn’t doing them with a business mind; I wasn’t promoting at all; I was just exploring, basically.
And that was ok probably, at that point, or did it make you worried and nervous: nobody likes my approach?
No it didn’t make me worried and nervous, no, not at all, because I wasn’t doing it for an audience. I was mostly doing it as a way to explore a website-production kind of thing.
It’s great that you had this interest in both pronunciation and computers.
Yeah, no, definitely.
You weren’t an expert right? It just got you more into thinking about…
No, not pronunciation, I mean that I’m just wondering, especially for people out there thinking about doing any kind of online anything, but especially teachering or students who want to study online, who might be a little afraid of technology thinking that they can’t do it. It sounds like you kind of dove in. One step at a time.
Oh totally. I mean, when I realized what I needed to learn, I learned it. I did not start Rachel’s English at all with an idea of what it would be, like, in no way, and I’m still not sure what it will be.
And that’s important to the point now, because it’s gotten, it’s so well done now. I think that someone who hasn’t followed you for as long as I have or as long as many otherpeople here may have, would just think that, wow that she just, boom, but it didn’t happen that way, it grew.
It started out in a dorm room in Germany.
When was that, by the way?
That was 2008. This October will be my 5th year anniversary of posting my first video.
Congratulations in advance; that’s great.
I want to ask you more about the rhythm of English, because I focus a lot on that too. What techniques have you found most useful? Because there are a lot out there.
Yeah, well, I’m still developing that actually. But I’ve had a lot of fun recently working with students where I actually take the actual words out of the picture, and we just work on rhythm. So, for example, let’s just take that phrase da-da-DA-da: for example. And when you take the text out, you’re just focusing on the rhythm. Then the main thing I haveto do with my students is to make their short even shorter, duh duh duh duh, trying to make them comfortable with that kind of length; and then once they start having, like, the rhythmic language down, and they’re comfortable with that contrast and with making things that short, then when they put the word back in it’s just unreal how much better it sounds.
And then they’re so aware of the difference so if you don’t hear it yourself, feel it yourself, then you’re not going to catch it when people say it.
Yeah. It’s such a matter of boiling things down to the most simple units for teaching. So, like the L consonant, just drilling that, or in this case the rhythm, just drillingthat, out of the context of the word or phrase. And then you know you can teach people that this rhythmic pattern can apply to all ofthese different words. And so, yeah, then as they really drill one word and one pattern, they’re actually making themselves comfortable with the pattern that can be applied to tons of different words and sentences.
And you said you’re still developing this, so imagine where she’s going to go with…
Yeah, I’m excited about it!
…teaching the stress and what I call “shrinking and linking.” I just wanted to go back to ask you, when you first started out and you were making those videos, did you think about the fact
that so many students don’t have enough time in the class? I mean, you were teaching a group of Korean students.
Yeah, that was about a year before I started the Rachel’s English thing.
Was part of it, were you also inspired or motivated to try to deliver something to individual students who wouldn’t necessarilyhave that kind of attention to pronunciation?
Well, yeah, in a way. When I was teaching at the institute in Boston, all of my students told me no one else cared about the pronunciation
the way I did, and they really cared. So they really wanted a teacher who really cared.
Well, can you imagine someone who is trying to learn a language who’s not concerned about pronunciation? But it’s true, what you’re
saying. I hear this complaint from a lot from students that teachers aren’t focusing on it. So definitely that was in the back of my mind and the videos were made completely for self-study. I know that teachers do use them in the classroom but my original idea was just to have a great resource to use on their own because for me, since I left college, everything I’ve had to know, I taught myself. The library, or online resources, or whatever. Languages, computer stuff.
That’s interesting. I love that kind of learning.
Well, I can see how that has benefitted you and your work.
Yeah, definitely. Basically, I wanted to make something for English like I wished I was finding for French, and German, and Italian. I thought it wasreally fun. I wanted to sort of provide this service for students.
I think it’s really interesting that you made them for self-study.
You didn’t really think about a teache bringing them into the classroom. But now, I notice a lot of teachers using it in the flipped classroom model. The other day, literally the other day at
a college where I was doing a workshop, teachers were talking about the problem we just talked about: students want more and what should they do because they don’t feel trained enough. I think that’s a big reason why it’s not.
I think so, too. I’ve had teachers say the same thing: I don’t know how to teach that.
I’m a teacher trainer. My job is to try to train up teachers to be able to do that and now I’m wondering if that is the best
way because the other day teachers were gathered at this college in New Jersey. One teacher said, You know there’s this great teacher online, that teaches pronunciation. Students can just watch her, she’s online, I knew she was going, and she said, Rachel’s English! True story.
I smiled to myself “I’m going to have a conversation with her!” What she said was, “What I do with my students is just, you know, ask them to watch on their own or, and/or I learn from Rachel as a teacher how to do this in ways that I haven’t been able to do from books or even taking classes.”
It feels great to know that I’m providing something that can be helpful to teachers, too. Because you know teachers, obviously, it’s one person, and they’re reaching many,many, many so if I can help the teacher, then there’s just that many more people that are benefiting from it. But yeah, I think that the idea of the flipped classroom is so greatbecause, you know, not only do the teachers not need to learn every single thing to teach directly, they can sort of be a curator of other resources, and oversee the process of learning for their students. It’s a very specific skill set to teach pronunciation, different maybe than the to teach a language, and grammar,and classroom management. You would know, and she would know that, better than anyone.
That’s right, so, you know, not every teacher needs to be a great musician and a you know super great at teaching pronunciation if they know other resources that they can recommend.
Aren’t we at a time in history, with education, where, you know, teachers can be facilitators, guides, curators, mentors, you know, if you want to learn to be a great pronunciation teacher, fantastic; but if you don’t or if you don’t have the time, what’s the point of being a mediocre one, when you can go see Rachel.
Exactly, that’s exactly right. I mean, a great teacher is maybe one that knows, well, this person teaches this so well, there’s
nothing more that I feel like I could add to it, let me point my students in that direction, let them work with the material, and then I can be there for questions and guidance,
and that kind of thing. I think it’s so important.
And I think, ultimately, it’s just going to make education a lot better.
Yeah, I think so, too.
So you had that experience teaching in a classroom. Someone the other day said, talking about ‘ground teachers’, or teachers on the ground. I love that. Instead of, like, ‘first life’ or ‘real
life’. Are you a ground teacher also?
I’m not right now, actually.
You’re not on the ground.
Not on the ground.
Yes, only in the cloud. But I do have plans to start developing, maybe, some in-person workshop kind of things, then maybe move more into longer-term classroom
situation. I’m really not sure. I mean, I just, for every video I make I have ideas for a hundred. I feel like I have a lot on my plate with what I’m doing virtually. And so, I do really want to move into that, because I think that in-person aspect is so interesting.
Well, they can go hand-in-hand. Can’t they?
The blended learning doesn’t just have to happen with the teacher flipping the classroom, it can also be, people are watching your videos, but here you are in person…
I think, definitely. I see myself moving in that direction at some point, but it’s not in the short-term plan.
You just got back from a trip.
I was spying on you a little bit on the trip. I don’t usually spy.
I made it easy.
I guess it’s easy for us to spy on each other and many others who are watching, so it’s kind of fair. So tell us where you were, and also tell us, how much was work, how much
was pleasure? Because I did see you met some students.
…where you were. So tell us how that
Well, I had my first-ever meetup, in Berlin. Two students came.
It was great!
Not 200. Two students came, neither of them are German. It was fantastic! We sat down to coffee; we were there for about two hours and, just, discussed everything about
who they are. It was just fantastic getting to know them as people. It was very motivating for me, actually, to think these are real people, these are the people who are using my videos. And, like, wow. I mean, it’s easy sometimes, I think, to lose track of that when, as in my case, I’m only doing virtual teaching. I’m doing no one-on-one teaching.
Rachel, there are so many people out there who want to meet you at meetups in Brazil.
I know! In Russia, in Taiwan. I’d like to do more, definitely.
So you said you are interested in doing the on the ground workshops, so when are you going to…where?
Well, the most vocal group of people is in Brazil.
So I will probably end up there at some point, I hope. I hope, fingers crossed. But also, I live in New York City and that’s such a melting pot, there’s so many people
there; it’s crazy that I haven’t done something in New York City. I should.
Wow! We should talk about that.
Great. Rachel, I know a lot of people out there, both teachers and students who follow you, are probably really interested to know how you make your videos. How do you makevideos, how often do you do it, how long does it take, do you do it on your own, do you do it with other people’s help…
Yeah. Well, I try to do two a week and it takes, depending on the length of the video,
it takes around ten hours per video.
Ten hours per video. That includes editing all the way to the end?
Yeah, that includes everything: brainstorming, writing out the transcript, doing my hair and make-up, the lights, all of the set-up.
How much help do you get with that?
I had been doing it entirely on my own until about maybe six months ago. I had someone come in and help me, because rather than doing it at home, I started doing it at the YouTube studios in Manhattan, where they have all of the equipment already set up.
That must have been really nice.
It was great. It was fantastic. But I have to have someone run the camera and the teleprompter and help me if I meant to say ‘consonant’ but accidentally said ‘vowel’. That kind of
thing happens all the time as I’m talking. But yeah and then, there’s, the editing takes quite a bit of time. I try to put some of the IPA and text up on the video screen.
Yeah, I noticed that you’re doing more of that.
Typing up the transcript, making, you know, an interactive transcript version for my website. The whole process is about ten hours.
How much of that process has evolved from when you first started? And how much have you changed, either, what you do, your approach to teaching pronunciation, and the video-making, in response to what students have told you, or teachers have told you they liked or didn’t like?
Well, I guess I haven’t actually gotten so much feedback that shapes how I make the videos. I more get, suggestions for topics which I try to do.
Is there anything you haven’t covered yet, as far as, consonants, vowels?
Well, I still have some blend work I would like to do. But the sounds are pretty much there. It’s more fleshing out the rhythm. As I said, I feel like I’ve got sort of a gray idea of how I want that to go, so trying to sharpen that. Really, I said before, for every video I have I ideas for a hundred more. I mean, I could right now write down a thousandvideos that I would like to make.
Do you? Or do you just keep them like..
I keep track as I go. But a lot of them are, like, I get an idea of a way to teach a sound and so then, that would be thirty-three different videos because I would do it for
every sound, and that kind of thing.
Right, right. I just want to take this opportunity to say that if you are a teacher, or even just a learner of English, or anything, if you wanted to write down your ideas and start video taping your ideas, it’s so easy
It is, yeah.
To get stuff out there. Even, you know, starting like you did. Not with a mission to become what you’ve become, but just as an interest in what you were studying and learning.
Right, just exploring what’s interesting.
Yeah, and, you know, at that point, to know anything about a website, design, was kind of unusal, compared to now.
Oh it’s so easy now. You don’t need to know anything now.
Yeah, except that way you can focus on.. Right, the content. And not the vehicle to get it out there, but more, just, the content itself. Which is great.
Have you found any areas of teaching pronunciation that are particularly difficult to master as a teacher? And I also wanted to ask you, from a student’s perspective, if a student is feeling frustrated with learning something in pronunciation, I wonder how much of that is due to, you know, the fact that it reallyis difficult because of their first language, learning English, or how much maybe is like, oh, I just didn’t know this trick, or something.
Right. I guess I have a couple of different answers for that. First is that I think that the rhythm is the most important thing in capturing the language, the character of the language, much more important than sounds.
You heard it here from the expert. I’m so 100 percent behind you.
And so it’s been, as I said, I’m developing sort of my way for teaching that. So that’s coming along, but there’s one topic that I’m actually still struggling with teaching, andthat has to do with the placement of the voice. So in American English…umm…uhhhh…that’s our core sound. It’s very much so here.
The schwa basically; the elongated schwa.
Exactly! And as a singer, I have dealt a lot with placement, but not in a very concrete way.
What do you mean by placement exactly?
Well, no, exactly, that’s part of why it’s hard to explain, and something a lot of people don’t think about, but for me it’s like, where does my voice live inside my body. And for me, and I think for Americans, it’s generally a lot lower; other languages it tends to bemore nasal. If I take American English as my base and I compare it to other languages,for example Mandarin. I’ve had some students that just have a very, very nasal delivery; and it also just has to do with the placement. Their voice seems to live so much in their face, completely detached from the body. Whereas for me, I think it really lives in the body and then the face is sort of where the shape of the sound will happen. So that’s been sort of hard to teach because it’s not at all like,
“oh you need to round your lips a little bit more.” It’s not something that people can see that’s concrete. It’s like, where does your voice live in your body, that’s sort of a difficult…
Do you think people that develop high accuracy and fluency in their pronunciation, delivery through just experience; and, you know, just like anything else in language, they’re not aware of what we’re talking about; do you think that’s the way, in this case? It sounds like the Holy Grail: if you can find whereyou’re voice lives.
You can go from sounding not quite right to sounding very American really quickly if you can make that adjustment.
Does it come from just the input and the practice or is it something you could make a video for?
I’m working on a video series for it right now, but also a lot of it can be achieved through imitation. Yeah, but for some people
they’ll say “I know it’s not right, but I don’t know why it’s not right.” And oftento me it’s related to placement. So I’m trying to make some videos that will talk about thatin a concrete matter. Also, I’m very lucky to have found a teacher who I’m working with now named Tom Kelly. And he is an actor and he has a Master’s in Acting from Harvard. He has a great background, speech for the stage; and placement and how to make someone hear you in the very back of the theater and relaxation of the vocal apparatus and everything.
Would say he knows where his voice lives?
I would say he does, and he seems to have language about moving that around and some techniques for that. So he and I are working together.
So if you can learn from him, you can take that and formulate it somehow.
He and I are talking actively about a video series where we work together on that.
That’s really interesting. So we can look forward to more of that.
Hopefully we’ll figure out how to teach it.
It’s almost like “metaphysical.
Exactly! That’s why it’s so hard.
Rachel, not long ago I started teaching in a virtual classroom on WizIQ. I got hooked. The first time I did it I dragged my feet getting into a virtual classroom. As soon as I got in there, people were in the chat box meeting each other “Oh, I’ve seen you, nice to see you there” She’s talking, I have the mike and we’re reaching all these people, the way you do with your videos. Have you done any work in a virtual classroom?
Not entirely, I do have an online course but it’s focusing more on the student interacting with the materials on their own and then one-on-one with me.
Tell us about that. What’s your online course like.
Well, it’s eight weeks, and basically I cover the topics that I found I work on the most with my private students. But since there’s so much one-on-one time, that doesn’t reallymatter. If something they need to work on isn’t covered in the course, we work on it together.
It’s always one-on-one or do you do small groups?
It’s always one-on-one.
Do you Skype?
Yeah, we Skype. But actually, Tom, the teacher I was talking about, is teaching a course for me right now. So I did it four times; he’s doing it twice, and I think we’re going to have a good enough sense for what worked well and what could work better that when he’s done we’re going to brainstorm and I think really revamp it to include much more of that sort of, you know, one to five kind of thing. Once you’re more certain about what people share, their needs. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m looking forward to it because I think that when studentscan hear another student being coached and they’re not actively engaged in having to react, they can just watch, I think that’s a great opportunity for learning, too.
Yeah, I agree. And then also you can meet more private students this way because more people will come into those classrooms.
They learn from each other, they learn from me; I think it’s fantastic. And also knowing people from all over the world is such a cool thing. You know, when I firststarted doing this and they were getting popular and so people were asking me, “Do you teach?” and I hadn’t yet ever online.
And that must have just really shocked people to hear that.
It was crazy. Yeah, and so I wasn’t sure how beneficial it would be to teach someone on Skype, you know, with pronunciation especially when you’ve got the mike and the speaker thing.
So what’s it like?
It’s been great!
So if I invited you into a virtual classroom one day, would you accept?
I would love it. I would love to see what that’s like.
I’m teaching with students but also I have a plan to bring teachers together coming up. Stay tuned for that.
Of course, I’d love for you to come.
Yeah, that’d be great!
Rachel, it’s such an honor and privilege to have you here.
Thank you for having me. It’s been very fun.
And this is the first episode or edition of “The Best in ELT with Fluency MC” so I’m really, really happy you agreed to come and it was great talking to you.
Yeah, you too.
I hope everybody enjoyed this conversation; I know I did. And please stay tuned for further editions of “The Best in ELT with Fluency
MC” only in WizIQ. Thanks so much. Peace and
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Click here to see more videos on pronunciation
Click here to see another video we made with Rachel.
Click here to see one of Jason’s raps that we recorded.