Is social media useful for language learning? This is something I’ve spent hours and hours thinking about over the past few years. On Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube I see hundreds of well-made videos introducing idioms, phrasal verbs, common sayings, and much more… but what is the point in this content?
In my opinion, a lot of Instagram and TikTok content for English learners is quite useless, and in the worst cases completely wrong. Social media English Teaching has become a big business with creators using videos and posts to attract new students, sell products, and grow fan bases. In fact, some of you probably found me through Instagram.
Is the content made by these English teachers actually useful for English learners? Or is it just designed to get the most views and likes? How should an English learner incorporate social media into their study routine? Today, we are going to try and answer these questions.
But, I can’t answer these questions myself – I don’t post enough online to know the answers. So, instead, I thought I’d invite a social media English teacher onto the podcast to discuss social media and language learning. And not just any English teacher, but one of the most popular right now.
Stew Sensei has over 250,000 followers across 2 Instagram accounts, 120,000 followers on TikTok, and is also active on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and has a podcast too. He makes a wide variety of video content across the internet and is the perfect person to talk to about the usefulness of social media for language learners!
Follow @stew.sensei.english on Instagram
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Thoroughly (adv) – completely, very much
I thoroughly enjoyed the performance
To humble (v) – to make someone understand that they are not as important or as special as they thought
He was humbled by the child’s generosity
Cycle (n) – a group of events that happen in a particular order
The life cycle of a moth is interesting
Melting pot (n) – a place where many different people and ideas exist together, often mixing and producing something new
London is a cultural melting pot
TH fronting (phrase) – the pronunciation of “th” as “f” or “v”
To transfer (v) – to move someone or something from one place or group to another
He has been transferred to a new department
Desirable (adj) – worth having and wanted by most people
She has a highly desirable job
Following (n) – a group of people who support, admire, or believe in particular person, group, or idea
The shop has a small but loyal following
Catchy (adj) – pleasing and easy to remember
That is a catchy song
Tendency (n) – a likelihood to happen or to have a particular characteristic of effect
She has a tendency to work late
Collaboration (n) – the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing
That shoe is a collaboration between the brand and an artist
To bear with it (phrasal verb) – to be patient with someone of something
Just bear with me while I download this file
A matter of something (idiom) – only; just
The building was in flames in a matter of seconds
Dictate (v) – to tell someone exactly what they must do
The UN will dictate the terms of the deal
To self-diagnose (v) – to identify a problem by yourself
He self-diagnosed his illness
Binary (adj) – relating to or consisting of two things, in which everything is either one thing or the other
It’s a binary choice, you either accept or you refuse
Grey area (n) – a situation that is not clear
The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is a grey area
Gospel (n) – the complete truth
I don’t know what happened to the money, that’s the gospel truth
Clickbait (n) – articles, photos, etc. on the internet that are intended to attract attention
His videos are poor quality with clickbait titles
Subjective (adj) – infleucned by or based on persoanl beliefs or feelings, rather than based on facts
I think she is the most beautiful girl in the world, but my judgement is subjective
Scouse (n) – a person/thing from Liverpool
He has a really strong scouse accent
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A Conversation with Stew Sensei! (Podcast Transcript)
Who is Stew Sensei?
Hi Stew, how are you?
Really great thanks! It’s great to be here.
I’m sure some of my listeners, maybe a lot of my listeners, have seen you before on Instagram or TikTok, but for the people who have not seen you before, can you introduce yourself?
I would love to. My name is Stew. I am from England, originally from Essex, but I spent half my life in Devon. I have lived in Japan for seven years and I’ve been teaching for around about the same amount of time.
Why is Stew in Japan?
How did you end up in Japan?
My partner is Japanese, and we met in England. We worked at the same place for a few years and started dating. Then I ended up moving here and now we have a family here. That’s basically the long story short.
Were you a teacher in the UK?
I wasn’t an English teacher. I have taught people different things, but I wasn’t an English teacher before coming to Japan.
You’re now in Japan. Do you speak Japanese?
I mean, I do speak a bit of Japanese, but not enough in my opinion. I think, to really get the full experience of a culture you should learn the language quite thoroughly. I used to work in a Japanese company as an English teacher and I wasn’t allowed to use Japanese in the company.
Then when I come home, I have two children, so I was just speaking in English at home. My day was English, English, English. When I made my own business, I was doing social media in English and then working at my old job in English and it felt like there was no time.
But I honestly believe there is no excuse for it, I could have made time if I really tried, and I think anyone can. My Japanese should improve over the next couple of years though hopefully.
You mentioned briefly that you have your own business now. What do you do?
I teach English. I would admit that when I first became an English teacher, the knowledge of the subject was not so great. But overtime, you know, I dedicated myself to learn. It’s a humbling thing, learning your own language.
I’m an English teacher. I help people on social media as well.
What kind of people do you teach?
I’ve taught people from age 0 to 80 – a really broad range with all different needs. But more recently I’ve focused more on communication skills and pronunciation because many people can’t jump over the block of speaking to people for the first time
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Stew’s Pronunciation and Accent!
I notice that your accent is quite different to my accent. How is it teaching pronunciation when you have a mix between an Essex and Devon accent?
That’s a really great question, and it’s something I’ve been really thinking a lot about over the last two years. I went through my own cycles of worrying about the way I spoke and whether it was acceptable, or people would accept it.
Whilst we do block accents into certain regional areas, I don’t think these days it’s clear and people travel so much that we have experiences hearing people from different places and being surrounded by them.
University is a good example. In the UK we tend to move away from home compared to other countries like Japan. I moved to Wales for two years, and you take in all these experiences, and it affects your vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation. It’s really a mixture, a melting pot of different ways of speaking.
I used to use like something called “TH fronting.” TH fronting is where we use V or an F instead of TH; I used to have that very prominently and I went through a period of trying to work on the traditional pronunciation. That was a good experience to have, because I experienced what learners go through
I’d probably say my accent is closest to estuary English if I had to pick category. But really, it’s mixture so.
I also did the same thing as you. I TH front, I don’t use my THs very well. I don’t use my R’s very well either, and that’s something I had to improve and learn my pronunciation as well. People were asking me “how do I pronounce that and this?” “I can’t do it so I have to study it.”
I say, “this is the standard way we tend to teach it, but you will also hear this or this and this.” Many Japanese speakers struggle with the L&R for example. I try to explain “r” in British is used a lot less and when you’re using words like “Girl” or “World” we don’t have to move the tongue.
That took me a journey to get to that point because we’re trained that there’s only one way to do things in most things in subjects, but actually there’s multiple ways. It is good for the learners to hear many different ways of doing things.
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Is Pronunciation Important?
Already on this podcast I’ve had Dan Sensei, who is from Sheffield and has a very different accent. I had two friends who come from the same place, and they speak similar to me. I’ve had someone from France, a Belgian girl who is half-Iranian half-Portuguese, raised in Switzerland, educated in England, and a Japanese woman who is bilingual in English and sounds like an American. All of these are different accents, and they’re all equally easy to understand.
People really care about their accent and their pronunciation. And I don’t think it’s that important. Pronunciation is important, I don’t think accents are important.
I always tell my students; I remember when a child was transferred into school and they come from a different place, like Italy or Spain and the pronunciation style was interesting. It was more desirable than anything, it made that person stand out a lot.
It was a great icebreaker. Anyone would start a conversation with that kind of person. The only time pronunciation becomes an issue is if communication isn’t successful. That’s when we need to look at it, but it doesn’t mean you need to change your accent.
Social Media and Language Learning
I want to talk about something maybe a little different to other interviews and other podcasts you’ve had before. You have a large social media following, especially on Instagram and TikTok, so I want to talk about social media and language learning.
I’m sure a lot of the people listening today have used social media before to learn languages. And perhaps they even follow you, and hopefully they follow me as well.
I’ve experimented with making different content over the past few years and I’ve had some success on Instagram and TikTok, but I stopped because I was mainly making posts about idioms and phrasal verbs – things with catchy titles.
I didn’t really think what I was making was actually useful. It struck me once when I was making an idiom Instagram post, and then I wrote a podcast the week after about the 50 idioms that are going to go extinct in the English language – I realized that on my list of idioms were a lot of idioms that were about to go extinct because they only used by less than 10% of the population.
Just because I was making things that were popular, doesn’t mean that the post was useful. Now, I post more personal stuff and I post more vocabulary in context about the news, which is closer to my brand.
Today, I want to talk to you about these kinds of issues! Let’s start by just saying what kinds of social media do you use?
Stew Sensei’s Social Media Presence
I literally am everywhere – Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and I have a podcast as well.
What’s your biggest platform?
I have two Instagram accounts that are around about 130,000 followers and then TikTok is at nearly 120,000 followers. I’ve only just started focusing on YouTube more recently. It’s nearly 5000 now, so it’s growing. Each platform has its differences and tendencies, but a lot of companies are now trying to appeal to everyone.
TikTok came along with short form content, and now you see reels and shorts on Instagram and YouTube respectively. Twitter is the only one that really stands out to me at the minute as something very different.
I don’t think you can just make videos and post them. I think you have to play with each social media in its own context.
Why did you start using social media?
Just before coronavirus, maybe four years ago, I decided to go to England – my first time back in three years at that point. I saved up all the money to go, but then my wife became pregnant, so we needed all the money we saved to be used for the baby.
Instead, I did a ridiculous number of hours teaching online on iTalki, the first time I ever did online lessons. I made my lessons super cheap so I could instantly get lots of clients to make the money back up as soon as possible.
At the end of that cycle, I decided I can’t keep on doing this because I was working 90 hours a week or something. I ended up stopping the online lessons, but one of my students said, “well, why don’t you post on social media? You might find some more clients that way.”
I ended up starting to make content, and the first video took like 2 weeks to make. You have to get over yourself, listening to your voice, and seeing your face on the screen.
Like you said, you now have over 100,000 followers on Instagram accounts and on TikTok. How did you become so popular?
You see what other people are doing online and you begin to think, “maybe I could do something similar.” Like you said, there’s a lot of idioms and phrasal verbs. I thought why are people not learning this?
Everyone is putting out the same posts, but the students are not actually taking it in. At that point, English teachers were just putting a picture up with the phrase and the definition and nothing else.
I decided, well, let’s make a conversation out of it. I started making these conversations online. That was my first “creative thing” I did on my own. I started making scripts and I actually really enjoyed making scripts and things.
It took time, but it’s fun to do! I enjoy having some comedy too… I’m no comedian, but I thought if I laughed, maybe other people would laugh too.
Collaboration is obviously important if you want to grow. I’ve been doing it for three years and I’ve seen almost like cycles. I saw just picture posts at the beginning and then suddenly there was an age of conversational content.
I can say over the three years of Instagram, there’s been cycles where growth happens and then suddenly stops, and you just have to bear with it because there will be another growth. I’ve never been someone to just stick on one thing – I find it very boring, so I have to evolve.
I just happened to hit TikTok at the right time. To be honest, just before I got big, and they were really pushing out content. They wanted people to come on the platform, so I hit 70,000 in a matter of about three months. It really it was really crazy growth.
Instagram – maybe I got to 3000 within a year, but then I started to click on certain things. I do lots of studying around the topics, social media, how to grow, and what other people were doing. I learned from more experienced people.
Things still evolve, but you get more ideas, and it helps you on the next platform if you want to expand.
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What kind of content does Stew Sensei make?
How do you decide what content to make? Are you thinking about its usefulness to the learner? Or are you thinking about how many people are going to watch it?
I went through this similar phase that you are alluding to where I felt that “this is not useful for people”, but as a teacher we cannot dictate what is useful for people. They dictate themselves in their minds.
I think that many people self-diagnose themselves. They decide, “I’m not good at idioms, that’s why I’m not fluent,” – so they have self-diagnosed that problem. Just like we do on the Internet when we have a cold.
That is why idioms or phrasal verbs content are popular – people have self-diagnosed their issue and then they think “that is my problem.” I think that’s the reason why, like you said, things had become popular.
I think that having some kind of emotion attached to the content helps people learn. The posts I do with my friend really caught fire because no one is doing that kind of content: where there’s two people trying to have a fun pointing out the differences in English – that stuff has been very successful.
Then also content where you think you should know what the answer is, but you don’t. I put up a post which just hit a million views where I went through pictures of what I would say is trousers or underwear. People were shocked because they think there’s only one variety of English, and I think the emotion there draws people in because they realize, “oh, there’s another variety and I might hear it”
When you talk about being useful, I think you have to analyse your situation. “Why are you learning English?” is the most important question.
I think this idea of what is useful is an important thing to think about. If watching a short form Instagram and Tik T.O.K content motivates you, makes you interested in learning English, makes you go and study some more, then it’s really useful.
And that’s even if the content itself is not actually the best. Usefulness can be in terms of motivation, in terms of inspiring you to go out and learn, and I think that’s one of the main purposes of Instagram and TikTok content.
And then the second thing – TikTok and Instagram are short videos. They’re just one minute. We love categories; we love binaries, right? “British English versus American English.” “Natural English versus textbook English.” “Don’t use this, use this.”
I see a lot of these posts online and the problem I have with these posts is that they are far too simple. As a native English speaker who has studied quite a few of the world top universities, I would never use some of the recommended idioms or phrasal verbs in any situation – professionally, academically, even socially.
I don’t understand why there has to be this binary.
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Is Social Media Useful for English Learners?
Language in general is not as black and white as people try to tend to make it, just like formal and informal English. I think there’s a massive grey area, especially if you’re from Britain or America. It might be different, but culturally in Britain you could go to your boss and, if you have a good relationship, you can speak to them informally.
I can say honestly, I’ve been a victim of that kind of situation where you’re testing content, and then when you see something is successful you copy it.
Teaching on social media and teaching in the classroom are two completely different things. The things that you say on social media, they’re just a second in someone’s life and but they can be gospel to that person.
You have to really think about it. I’ve done this “stop saying ‘very’” content before, for example. Now, I tend to say something like “very is fine, but you could also say…” The context is important because maybe you want to use more advanced vocabulary if your aim is to get a high score in a test and you need to exhibit your skills.
Idioms are a great example of something that it can be extremely regional. “Hit the hay” and “hit the sack” is the simplest version I can think of where there’s two varieties. Maybe some of the idioms you use I wouldn’t use in the same situation. It doesn’t need to be as black and white, but I think it’s almost that clickbait culture that pushes people into making that content.
The key thing is that one piece of content that which reaches many people may actually introduce them to a lot of useful content as well.
I think that’s a good point. One viral video can change a teacher’s account.
We have to remember that English learners are from different backgrounds and all with different skill levels and you can be a great English teacher, but if your communication skill doesn’t work you can’t teach.
It’s the same thing with social media in my opinion. The usefulness is a very subjective to each person. You have to make a decision, at some point – “what am I targeting here?” “What do people react to and what do they say is useful and they say they enjoy?”
One of the big issues is people still think that textbook is the only way to learn a language. As you know, from your podcasts there’s other ways to learn English. It doesn’t have to be just grammar focused. If you do stuff you don’t enjoy, it inevitably ends in “I don’t want to do anymore.”
English learners are so lucky because there is so much different content out there. If you want to learn the Scouse accent, you could go and find content just with Scouse speakers speaking. You can find videos and podcasts in any sector
You just have to look how many English podcasts there are on Spotify: there are literally thousands and thousands of them. Obviously, they’re all at different levels or aimed at different people with different focuses.
What is social media good for?
Providing things at your fingertips. If you’re really clever. What I have done in the past is I’ve set up a new profile and just followed language learning material. Then you can switch profiles, and you have the ability then to learn, take your time and really go through things.
I think a key thing for a learner would be to have a plan of what you want to take from the day. What’s your goal? Are you just using social media to be surrounded by the language? Or are you looking to actually take in information?
If it was me, I would set dedicated hours to whatever your favorite thing is, whether it’s listening to podcasts or watching movies or using social media. Then, enjoy your time on it, but take away 5 points every time you study.
If your goal is to speak to people in England, I would suggest to just be following British English teachers. Push yourself in one direction. If your goal is to work as a health care assistant, then you can make a note anytime something to do with health comes up on your feed.
What can’t social media do?
It can’t help you speak if you don’t use your mouth. The formality of language being used on social media is also an issue. Will, in 30 years’ time, emojis and “lol” be used in emails? I see executives using emojis these days.
Languages evolve all the time, but I think if there’s no plan in place, you won’t make the most out of social media at all. There’s just so much information and it’s really an overload.
Look at yourself. Analyze what you’re trying to do.
Social media could be part of part of your studying, but it’s not everything. If all you do is follow Thinking in English and Stew Sensei on Instagram, that’s not going to make you fluent. But if you’re listening to podcasts, if you’re watching YouTube videos, if you’re reading books, if you’re going to a class as well, it’s all part of the studying process!
What I’d love to tell people is just to work out what their goal is and go for that. If you want to speak, just looking at social media will not help you with speaking. So, you need to get out there, push yourself and extend your comfort zone. You will definitely achieve things within the next year if you do that!
That was my conversation with Stew Sensei! I want to say a massive thank you to Stew for taking the time to come on to the podcast – I think it was a great conversation. Go and follow him everywhere, and in September I will be appearing on his podcast!
What do you think? Is social media useful for language learners? Do you follow English learning resources on social media? How do you use social media to study/practice English? What social media do you use?
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