Daniel Emmerson on the “Learning English Video Project”
Tara: Tell us a bit about your background in the English language teaching industry. What was your involvement in TEFL before making the Learning English Video Project documentaries?
Daniel: I suppose the very root of my background in ELT began when I embarked on the ERASMUS study abroad programme with the British Council. I was studying Media Arts for my B.A. at Plymouth University and I was offered the chance to travel to Poland in order to study for three months during my second year. It was while I was in Poland for that very first time, which was back in 2005, that I started offering one-to-one tuition in English at the University in Katowice. I began to look online for some resources and I stumbled upon TEFL.net, which was my primary gateway to ELT. It was through this website that I began researching the industry and from there I decided it would be interesting to try and make a film about the various courses, methods and practices in the industry.
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Poland and did a CELTA course straight away. I was offered a job at a school in Krakow immediately after finishing the course and I began putting what I had learned into practice. I very quickly began to build up a web of contacts, all of whom came from different social and economic backgrounds, providing further confirmation that the industry would make an excellent subject for a film. It was for that reason that I approached TEFL.net who agreed to sponsor a documentary film for and about TEFL teachers. I filmed in Thailand, Slovakia and Poland, gathering an amazingly eclectic batch of interviews and released the final production, aptly named Talking TEFL, through TEFL.net in early 2008.
Tara: Can you remember the first time you thought about making the Learning English Video Project? What inspired you to develop this idea, and how did Josef Essberger (founder of EnglishClub.com) respond?
Daniel: Soon after the release of Talking TEFL, I met with Josef Essberger and we began discussing what would become the Learning English Video Project. We decided that after making a film for and about TEFL teachers, it would be a good idea to make something for learners as well; preferably something that could then be used by teachers in the classroom later on. The preliminary plans for the project were then put into motion.
Josef was very supportive and enthusiastic about the project. He came up with a great deal of the ideas with regards to content, story and additional resources that could be used to run alongside the films. We spent a few days discussing locations and time frames during the summer of 2008. During that time I was also working as a coordinator at Millfield Enterprises in England, the country’s largest English language summer school, and so I was able to keep my finger on the pulse of the ELT industry at the same time. Josef and I decided on the film locations and the themes of the first five films. I then went to work on collaborating with language schools, teachers and students in the cities that we had chosen.
Tara: You filmed in seven locations: Morocco, the UK, Brazil, China, Spain, the USA and Romania. Tell us about the selection process.
Daniel: It was during those initial conversations that I had with Josef Essberger about the project that we decided it would be a good idea to film at five locations that differed from each other in culture, language and heritage. There were so many countries that we wanted to include in the project but we had to make a firm decision about where we wanted to film. We chose Morocco because it would be quite probable that learners there would be acquiring English after already being able to speak Arabic, French and quite possibly Spanish as well. The UK and the USA were selected because a great number of international students travel to these locations in order to learn English outside of the classroom as well as during lesson time. Spain was chosen in particular to reflect what it might be like learning English in a Western European country and Romania was chosen to document what it might be like learning English in the Eastern side of Europe. Having said that, Belarus was the original destination for the fifth film, but my crew and I had some problems obtaining visas.
Those first five films were produced between September 2008 and June 2009. They were released on EnglishClub.com and were received very well indeed by both learners and teachers alike. So positive was the response in fact that Josef and I decided to extend the project to a seven-part series and that is when we decided to include China and Brazil; two countries that are as different and far apart geographically as they are in language and culture, despite their both being BRICS countries. [Vocab Note: BRICS is an acronym used in economics to group the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which are regarded as being at a similar stage of economic development.]
Tara: How did you decide on the focus or theme for each film?
Daniel: To begin with, the themes were very dependent on who I was able to collaborate with on location. However, it was Matt Errey (inventor of the popular TEFL board game Word Up) and Josef Essberger who worked with me as production consultants in providing ideas and suggestions for the theme of each film. Both Matt and Josef played essential roles in the success of the project, which would not have been the same without their input and support.
Tara: The films highlight how learning English is becoming a necessity around the world. In which of the countries that you visited do you feel people are embracing this reality the most?
Daniel: When you meet so many dedicated people who are learning and teaching English, it is impossible to say which people are embracing the need to learn that language the most. Personally, I felt that there were people in each of our locations who were exceptionally motivated to learn English, not only because they believe it to be a necessity, but because they are driven and determined to embrace another language for themselves.
Tara: What’s a memorable learning tip you heard from a student while you were filming this project?
Daniel: I recall that there was a young lady in Bucharest named Roxanne who said that she used to apply gaffa tape to her television in order to hide the Romanian subtitles on the Discovery Channel, and that helped her to learn. I suppose that it is one of the most memorable tips because she risked destroying her TV for the sake of learning English. Now that is dedication!
Tara: Most of the speakers in the film do not speak perfect English. What is your response to viewers who are critical of English mistakes that the students or teachers make in the film?
Daniel: Even though I consider myself to be quite good behind the camera, I am simply terrible (as you might have seen from the LEVP video blogs) when I am in front of it. Being in front of the camera is a strange experience and I have nothing but the utmost respect for all of the people who took part in the project because of the courage it must have taken to be interviewed on film in a foreign language. It is inevitable that people make mistakes on camera, I make mistakes on camera, and I think that everyone who allowed me to interview them for the project should be proud of themselves.
Tara: Absolutely. What advice would you have for teachers or schools that want to try documenting their own students’ learning journeys?
Daniel: I think it is an excellent idea. There are so many creative and interesting ways students can go about documenting their own progress and I wholeheartedly encourage them to experiment. Having said that, I would suggest that in order to get the best results, it needs to be something that the students are on board with as well. I can’t see it working if it is something the teachers decide to force upon their students.
Tara: I know that you have received many invitations and requests from teachers and learners to film in their countries, even though the project has come to an end. But if you could film in one more location on this subject, where would it be and why?
Daniel: I did indeed receive many invitations from teachers and learners all over the world, and I was most grateful for each and every offer. That is what makes this an extremely difficult question to answer. Every country is unique and has something fascinating about it that would be incredible to explore on film. However, if I was forced to answer, I would say Kenya. I think it would be a superb opportunity to be able to take the Learning English Video Project to a country that has over 65 recognized languages in addition to such a phenomenally diverse landscape and culture.
Tara: Thank you Daniel. It has been wonderful getting to know you through this project over the past few years. Best of luck with your next project, whatever and wherever it may be!