Welcome to YouTube Millionaires, where we profile channels that have recently crossed the one million subscriber mark. There are channels crossing this threshold every week, and each has a story to tell about YouTube success. Read previous installments of YouTube Millionaires here.
Rachel Smith has thrived on YouTube by providing her viewers with an essential resource.
Smith, who has been an ESL teacher since 1999, is the woman behind Rachel’s English, a channel that offers lessons in the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of American English. Smith serves as the channel’s teacher and on-screen host, and she uses ample education experience to create videos that are informative, engaging, and, for non-native speakers who have moved to the US, valuable. Taken together, Smith’s subscribers from around the world now number more than 1.3 million, so we got in touch with her to talk about her career in language instruction.
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Tubefilter: How does it feel to have more than one million subscribers on your channel? What do you have to say to your fans?
Rachel Smith: It does feel like a big achievement. Growth on my channel has been slow and steady, so reaching this milestone has taken a long time. A couple months after the day I reached it, I had a big party at the YouTube Space in Manhattan to celebrate, and I was able to meet fans from all over the world who were living in the US and Canada. I was really touched by how much effort people made to be there: flying up from Florida, hours and hours on a bus. One guy even flew in from China. He was only able to be in the US for three days, and he came just to be at the party!
To my fans, I say: thank you for spending your time with me and letting me teach you. Everything I know about teaching I have learned from the actual act of teaching, and I can’t do that without students!
TF: How do you feel the visual aspect of YouTube helps you teach American English?
RS: The videos allow students to hear and see the language at the same time. For example, when studying a sound, they can see exactly what the mouth position is as they hear the sound. In a series I did on interviewing for a job, we talked about body language, and being able to demonstrate that in a video was key. I can’t imagine trying to teach pronunciation, listening comprehension, and conversations skills with a book!
TF: Why do you think it’s important for non-native speakers to learn idiomatic expressions and slang as well as “proper” English?
RS: Well, I would challenge the question here and say that idiomatic expressions are a part of proper English, and it’s imperative to learn them if you’re going to be communicating with native speakers because of how frequently they are used. For example, a student of mine was confused when someone wanted to touch base on a work project. Touch base? If you’ve never heard it, the meaning isn’t apparent from a short sentence. You might know touch, you might know base, but if you don’t know the idiom it doesn’t make sense. There are hundreds if not thousands of idioms that are used regularly (‘touch base’ comes to us from baseball), so being familiar with them is important for comprehension.
Slang, on the other hand, would fall outside standard or ‘proper’ English. I tell my students a lot of Americans, depending on age group or region, don’t understand slang either. For adults interacting only with adults, it’s not a huge deal. But for my students who come to the US to study in high school or college, it can be incredibly isolating not to understand any of the terms being used by those age groups.
TF: What part of American English do you feel ESL speakers struggle with the most?
RS: My students come to me because they need help with listening comprehension and being understood. It’s incredible – some of them can read and write just like a native speaker, but understanding them speaking is a challenge. If you learn from books with non-native teachers, which most of them do in their home countries, then spoken English is going to be a skill that is not developing at the same rate as grammar, reading, and writing skills. So for my students, communicating in spoken English is absolutely their biggest struggle, somewhere they are lacking confidence.
TF: What’s the most interesting interaction you’ve had with one of your fans?
RS: Answering this is really, really tough! The thing about my students is they all have an interesting story, they’re all making incredible effort to learn another language for some fantastic reason. One person that sticks out in my mind is a girl from Thailand whose name in English means Little Pearl. I do video challenges every few months on my channel where students send in a video to practice their English, answering a simple question. Then I put all the videos together and publish it. Little Pearl sent in a video for my very first challenge, and has continued to do so for challenges over the years. It’s amazing to see her grow over time as she works away at her English.
TF: How do you feel your teaching experience helps you learn other languages aside from English?
RS: I always like to see, at the beginning, what makes a student sound strange in English. I know that is something I will have to keep in mind when studying their native language. For example, is their speech really choppy, a little break between each word? Then I know when I study that language, I need to remember not to connect everything like we do in English.
TF: Out of all the languages you’re familiar with, which is your favorite to speak?
RS: I do love speaking German. That’s probably because it’s the language I am best at outside of English. I started this whole journey as an opera singer, so I also sang a lot in German. I think it’s a beautiful language.
TF: What are some of your interests outside of the language world?
RS: I am a huge consumer of the performing arts: opera, orchestras, chamber music, dance, theater. I love it all! And I love to do this when I travel – it’s fun seeing different opera houses around the world.
My husband I and also like to go adventuring outside of Philadelphia, and we really take advantage of having flexible schedules. Recently, we went to Italy for a month with our two-year-old son. We hit a few of the touristy spots, but also we just did a lot of living: walking around, finding playgrounds, shopping at local markets. Though traveling with a toddler is hard, I also think it’s a great way to slow down when traveling and see more of life in a new location.
TF: What’s next for your channel? Any fun plans?
RS: I had a Rachel’s English meet-up when we were in Rome in the fall, and then of course I met so many amazing people at my Million Subscriber party, that I’d really like to see putting together more ways to meet my online students in real life.
As for video content, there is a never-ending supply of interesting American pronunciation habits to teach. So often when I have a conversation or watch a show, I think, “I should teach that!” More than once I have pulled out my video camera and said to a friend, “can you say that again?”
I’m going on my tenth YouTube year this fall, but I’m definitely still motivated to keep exploring this language with my students and helping them unlock it.