WEST LINN, Ore. — A "stick jockey" who gets "psyched" and "busts his chops" may be clear enough to modern Americans, but may as well be moonspeak to foreigners.
Four University of Oregon graduates are out to change that, teaching Conversational English American-style on the Internet to clients in Japan, India, Peru and beyond.
Their fledgling business is called English, baby! — a slick, flashy Internet immersion experience that steeps students in Western pop music and culture.
More than 3,000 users in 60 nations have signed up for lessons. The company’s Web site, offering 60,000 pages of instruction and information, gets 14,000 hits a month.
The site’s owners, all 20-something first-time Internet entrepreneurs, are quick to acknowledge that those figures aren’t even a fraction of the estimated millions worldwide who are studying English as a second language.
But with a $500,000 fund-raising effort nearly completed, they are confident they can make a go of it.
"This is a chance to apply lessons that users could only get by traveling to an English-speaking country," said chief executive officer John Hayden says.
Within two or three years, he predicts, the company should not only be turning a profit but also representing an indispensable piece of Web-based language instruction.
The company’s business plan is sculpted from lessons learned by first studying Japanese in college and, later, teaching English in Japan. Their eye-opener came when, upon first arriving in Japan, they realized that all the grammar and vocabulary lessons in the world couldn’t prepare them for real-life conversations.
English, baby! tries to correct that by posting instructional materials drawn directly from popular culture. From Madonna to the Monkees, from trendy movie dialogue to swapping e-mails and jokes, the lessons strive to give students a feel for how English is spoken in the real world.
Zach Hoffman, the company’s vice president for Web development, recalls how his own Japanese students coped in the classroom just fine as long as he stuck to traditional teaching materials.
"They found they could shop and order food, but they were extremely frustrated because they couldn’t interact with their peers," he said. "They weren’t able to grasp mainstream culture because they’d had no real exposure to it."
One current posting includes dialogue from the movie "Mission to Mars." Accompanying notes illuminate the film’s slang-filled comments.
"These guys are all good friends and are in the habit of busting each other’s chops," the notes tell students, following dialogue passages in which the three astronauts ribbingly refer to each other as "stick jockeys."
Another page quizzes students about the definition of the slang word of the week, "psyched." In posted responses, Ammar, who lives in Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia, guesses it means to be "emotionally excited." Isak, in New York, thinks it means being "too excited so as to behave like a psycho."
"The whole goal is to immerse our students in the reality of another culture," Hayden said. "We’re simply giving them the interactive tools to do that."
The company got its start two years ago, when Hayden offered to write e-mails for some of his Japanese students. Responding to clamors from others, Hayden expanded the enterprise to include online clients. Soon, he started a Web site to channel the missives and started charging clients $40 a month to use it.
It wasn’t long before he, Hoffman and co-partner Miguel McKelvey began catching glimpses of the venture’s possibilities.
English, baby! is not the only company offering English, but may be the one deriving its instructional materials solely from popular culture.
Hayden hopes to capitalize on that niche by offering the company’s materials to other language-instruction companies.
"What that gives us," he said, "is the ability to turn competitors into collaborators."
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