Learn English Online

An interview with Josef Essberger,
Founder of EnglishClub


Josef EssbergerWhen it comes to learning English online, EnglishClub is one of the first names that naturally come to mind.

This mega site seems to have been here for ever.

It is one of the most popular free ESL websites, and has helped countless of learners and teachers worldwide.

And for a good reason. The wealth of free online resources at EnglishClub.com seems to have no limits.

Josef Essberger is the founder and spirit behind EnglishClub and its tremendous success.

Therefore, we are very happy to have him answering questions and sharing some insights.

1. You have such a great website – both interesting and informative.  It truly is an online English school (social engagement included!). How did it all start?

Thanks for your kind words. It actually started in 1997 in Paris, France, where I was teaching. I had only just "discovered" the Internet, and it just struck me as a fantastic means of delivering information to learners all round the world free of charge.

It started in a very small way, with material from worksheets and lesson plans that I’d created for my own teaching – that sort of thing.

One of the first things I did was an email newsletter – "ESL Progress", which is still going today. After that, it quickly grew with games and forums and more interactivity.

2. Were you always interested in teaching English?

Before 1990 I was in printing and publishing, and before that I was a photographer. A lot of my publishing experience involved writing training programmes for multi-national companies, but it was not teaching per se.

In 1991 I took the CTEFLA – precursor of the CELTA – and then spent time working in schools in Asia and Europe.

My interest is not so much in teaching as in providing an environment where people can learn. In other words, I believe in learning more than teaching :)

3. It seems that learning English online is becoming increasingly popular. Why do you think that is?

Maybe it’s just a natural progression. Everything is moving online. Plus there are new users coming online every day. Then the sheer convenience of learning online, at your own time, your own pace, with your own learning style . . .

4. In your opinion, will this method finally overtake the traditional way of learning English in a classroom?

That’s hard to say. I certainly don’t think the traditional classroom will die, though it may well change as it’s often too sterile. Perhaps there will be more emphasis on blended learning, where courses are a mixture of online and offline.

Essentially, I think there’s no real substitute for person-to-person contact at some point. I hope not anyway. The world would be a very sorry place if that were the case.

5. You offer many resources on your site, where does one begin?

The mantra of EnglishClub.com is "learning by doing".

It really isn’t a language "course" or "school". It’s a collection of resources that learners – and teachers – can use as they like.

If learners learn best playing games, they can do that. If they prefer more structured lessons, they can pick and choose. If they like to make progress through interacting with other members – the social engagement – that’s there too.

In that sense, one doesn’t begin anywhere. It’s horses for courses – and it gives the learner responsibility for his or her own learning. It places the emphasis on learning over teaching.

6. I really like your Idiom of the Day. How do you suggest teachers and students should use it to get the most out of it?

Many learners like to start a new session with a "word of the day". EnglishClub's Idiom of the Day gives them an easy way to do this. Teachers too. They can click Idiom of the Day from any EnglishClub page or subscribe by RSS.

We also offer Slang, Saying, and Phrasal Verb of the Day. Each entry comes with an explanation, example sentences and quick quiz.

For teachers, one fun activity is to have learners make predictions about the origin or meaning.

Another idea is to have students take turns presenting the word of the day. Finding ways to actually use the new words is important.

Some learners use Idiom of the Day for a chatroom topic. Others write a weekly blog post – could be a story or essay –  using the 5 words or phrases they learned. Some teachers have point systems that challenge students to use the new words in assignments, quizzes, presentations . . .

7. What would you say is the biggest challenge for students learning English online?

We actually asked this question in a discussion forum on EnglishClub last month. We’re always impressed by what our members do online with limited or no supervision from teachers – and no marks or credits.

At IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) last year one of the questions we received over and over from teachers was about motivation.

Teachers were shocked that EnglishClub learners were so active and open to trying new things in English. They wanted to know the secret to their self-motivation. On our forum we received some great responses from our members. One of the big challenges they discuss is getting distracted by other things online – in their own language.

They also say it can be tough finding people to practise with because of time zones and technical problems. Some do not have Internet access at home and have to go online while at work.

Yet despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, our members really do make progress and enjoy themselves at the same time.

For more info see: What are the challenges of online learning?

8. MyEnglishClub is quite a unique addition to the site. Could you tell our readers more about it?

MyEnglishClub is our own social network and helps give EnglishClub a wonderful intimate feel.

It’s very well administered by Tara Benwell who works hard to ensure everyone feels included.

Before MyEC we had forums and a chat room and even blogs, but they weren’t integrated. MyEC lets EnglishClub members do all this and more, all in one place.

By chatting and blogging and sharing content, members get to know each other in English, and often forget that they’re practising a new language.

Members have their own pages where they post photos, videos, blogs, status updates and favourite links.

Some work very hard to maintain their online profile and even have a celebrity status in the club. The active members get dozens of comments on their blog posts and enjoy being featured on our home page. They also create or participate in special groups in order to combine their interests with English. 

Every month several members challenge each other to English contests. These may be writing, speaking or even singing challenges! The one main rule is English only. Top content is featured in our monthly newsletter.

Some of our members are teachers and advanced learners who help out by offering feedback and making corrections when asked. Members also take turns moderating different areas of the club, including the chat room and photo gallery. These volunteers help us maintain a social network that is fun, safe and centred around English.

9. What has been your most rewarding experience on this journey?

Really, to see that EnglishClub actually does work, and gives opportunities to people who couldn’t afford a conventional study course. Over the years, to have seen and sometimes met members who have successfully used EnglishClub to improve their level of English, and maybe go on to study at university abroad or contribute to society.

A classic example of this is Arale, a young girl from a poor family in the north of Vietnam who through hard work and determination is now studying in the USA on a Ford Foundation scholarship. She couldn’t have done that without English, and much of her progress in English was through her very active involvement in the EnglishClub forums.

Anyone can read her story at:
My memorable time in English Club

10. Finally, what does the future hold for EnglishClub?

Well, as you know from Really-Learn-English.com, the Internet is constantly changing.

We work hard to keep in the forefront of developments, especially those that have potential for English learners. Audio and video are obvious examples, as well as social networking.

At the same time we don’t just go after the latest craze or technology just for its own sake. We want solid content that will stand the test of time and be accessible to English learners worldwide – who don’t always have the latest computers or hi-speed Internet.

That said, we’ll definitely be developing video much more and working on content that’s accessible via mobile platforms like phones and tablets. So in the future EnglishClub should be available to even more people worldwide.

Josef, thanks a lot for doing the interview and sharing your knowledge with us. It was very valuable.

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