IMAGE: Jonathan Hill
If you've studied a foreign language in school, then tried to speak it abroad, you know there's a huge difference.
And it's no different for people learning English and then coming here to deal with our bizarro lexicon that defines "beaver" as both Oregon's state animal and, well, you know.
In that gray area is where the Portland-based social networking site English, Baby! (englishbaby.com) thrives.
Founded in 2000,the site marked its 1 millionth member last month.
"We have members in every single country around the world," says co-founder and CEO John Hayden, a former English teacher and ex-international manager with Hitachi in Japan.
For $5 a month, English, Baby! offers standard grammar and vocabulary lessons, as well as information on modern slang and idioms that may not have a match in the student's native language. ("The big picture," for example.)
The site also serves as a social network, where students can join a forum to discuss phrases or anything else—one wedding even developed on the boards between a man from Turkey and a woman from Ukraine.
Slang terms are constantly updated and refreshed, while older slang is removed in favor of more current terms that pop up in conversation. "Cougar" is in; "the bomb" is out.
The lessons also include interviews with popular international figures, including Hives guitarist Nicholaus Arson from Sweden, Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli from Nigeria and the Trail Blazers' Nicolas Batum from France. The celebrities, who donate their time,explain key terms and phrases not commonly found in most textbooks, such as "slam dunk" and "headbang."
Does it work? Aiping "Maggie" Wei, a 23-year-old English-Chinese translator from Beijing and subscriber since 2007, says it does. She's learning English so she can better communicate with her friends and strengthen her job skills.
"It is a damn cool website that we can have some real fun by learning English through it," Wei says via email. "It is not only a cool English-learning website, but it can also make the foreigners know the life some American have and the attitudes they have for their lives."
Teachers abroad also use the site.
"The site offers complete, ready-to-use lessons on engaging topics that young people can relate to," says Nadeen Emeruom,an ESL teacher in Athens, Greece, in an email. "This has proved to be really helpful, to me as a teacher, especially for my online classes."
Hayden, who is one of 11 employees at English, Baby!, says fee-charging websites have "taken a real hit lately" from free social sites such as Facebook, as well as the ailing economy.
Hayden estimates that despite the economic downturn, English, Baby! revenue has actually increased. Hayden hopes to hit the 2 million-member mark in the next two years.
With that in mind, English, Baby! continues to expand with celebrity interviews and clips from TV shows and movies.
English, Baby! also recently debuted Ebaby! TV, which includes segments such as a Web-based soap opera featuring actors in what Hayden describes as an MTV Real World-type show for ESL students. The show helps to illustrate particular phrases—such as a recent skit in which the cast was seen diving into frigid waters to help explain the phrase "freeze our butts off."
Cool...as in fun.
English, Baby!'s single largest membership base is in China, with nearly 30 percent of all members logging on from the People's Republic.