One of the more overlooked corners of the YouTube community, it turns out, is also one of the more genuinely useful ones. Because if you’ve forgotten the video giant’s international reach, here’s a reminder of it: There’s a surprisingly large number of people creating videos to tackle the challenge of learning English as a second language.
Searching for channels with the keyword “ESL” pulls up over 3,600 results, the vast majority of which are devoted to English-as-a-second-language instruction. Videos on topics ranging from basic pronunciation to vocabulary have accumulated hundreds of thousands of views, with popular channels like Quality English Lessons Online accumulating millions.
Because the materials are available openly, that means there’s potential for unexpected repurposing of these lessons. One example is the story of Dave Valiulis, a technical writer and Ph.D who suffered a stroke in 2008 and has since been dealing with the effects of aphasia and apraxia, which damaged his ability to access words and manipulate his mouth to speak clearly.
After completing two years of professional speech therapy, Valiulis “graduated” and was left to improve his ability to talk on his own. Initially he went looking for things related to aphasia and apraxia, with little success — but when he discovered the amount of ESL material out there, he found his options widen dramatically. “I thought, ‘Of course — this is what I need! After all, English to a person with aphasia and apraxia is like a second language,’” Valiulis wrote via email.
The channel he found most useful was Rachel’s English, which currently has over 6,500 subscribers and 2.1 million views. Rachel’s videos break down the basics of American English in a number of ways, including the exact techniques behind pronouncing letters, with specific notes about tongue placement and throat movement — which is something that those with apraxia struggle to remember.
And while Rachel does not list any formal speech therapy training in her official bio, she does make note of her musical training in multiple languages; that musical training is what Valiulis found most helpful about her videos. “Rachel’s videos are unique in that she stresses the overall rhythm and flow — the musicality — of English,” Valiulis said. “This is very helpful to me and to the person with aphasia. That’s because music mostly comes from the right side of the brain — which is the undamaged side in most aphasics.”
The ESL courses aren’t a perfect solution for aphasics, according to Valiulis: “There are plenty of topics the aren’t relevant to me in typical ESL lessons (like grammar) and there are some things I need that are not covered in ELS (like word retrieval and improving my talking speed). But there is plenty of overlap — at least with Rachel’s videos — to keep me busy!”
I spoke briefly with Valiulis on the phone, and his speech was reminiscent of someone with an extreme stutter, but he spoke clearly and wasn’t hard to understand. The effects of his training are working. So the videos are doing what they’re supposed to: Help people learn to communicate better. Which is, ultimately, the point.