It was in Germany that Florida-born Rachel Smith first thought about what it means to speak like an American. An aspiring opera singer, Smith spent six months of 2008 in an intensive language program with fellow students from all over the world, including a young man from Turkey, who loved to talk with Smith about America and the English he grew up hearing in Hollywood movies. As they spoke, Smith started informally correcting his accent, in particular around sounds he didn’t have in his native Turkish, like the short A, as in bat: She opened her mouth wide, demonstrated the sound, and then told him to keep his tongue high in back and low in front.
“He made the sound perfectly after that,” Smith recalls. “And then he said, ‘Oh, you’re really good at that.’”
Smith, who graduated college with a triple major in music, computer science and applied math, had been looking for a reason to build herself a website while she was in Germany. Suddenly, she had one. In her apartment after class, Smith sat in front of her computer, turned on the camera and started filming herself pronouncing words in American-inflected English. Then she loaded the videos on to YouTube, where she explained (to a nonexistent audience) the mechanics of, for example, the short O, of dog: Tongue down all the way, like when a doctor is looking down your throat.
Rachel’s English is now a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation.
This was before social media was the giant it is, and Smith at first had no viewers at all. Slowly, though, an audience built up through people searching for pronunciation help on YouTube. Now Rachel’s English is a bustling YouTube business with 370 live videos, 280,000 subscribers and 100,000 Facebook fans. Smith, who moved to West Philly in early 2014, earns enough from Rachel’s English to live on (modestly). And now, she’s branching out. In addition to online seminars, Smith offers one on one online tutoring with her or a colleague, and she has just published her first e-book, American English Pronunciation, which she plans to launch on her site this month. She has several other books, on specific topics, planned out. And she is busy developing more and varied content to draw in even more viewers in the coming months.
“A lot of people are seeking to speak better English to make for better opportunities,” she says. “They’re trying to get promoted or trying to get into school, but find their communication is holding them back. The more I can give them what they need for their goals, the better it will be for Rachel’s English, as well.”
Smith has no formal training in phonetics or teaching English as a Second Language—she never even picked up an academic pronunciation book until she came back from Germany in 2009. What she has is music, and opera, which she gave up that same year. (The highlight of her opera career? Delivering one line in the Boston Lyric Opera’s performance of Madame Butterfly.) They gave her the basics for understanding word pronunciation, and an instinct for sound—without the complexity of academia.
“I had an awareness and vocabulary for how to talk about this through opera,” she says. “I can hear someone speaking, mimic them, and then say how they need to move their tongue. From music, I understand rhythm, pitch and overall character. I drew 100 percent from my own experience.”
In the last seven years, Smith has recorded about 450 videos. (She took some early videos down because she developed a better way teach a sound, or because of their low production values.) Most include Smith alone on a screen, enunciating clearly into the camera, explaining the nuances of American English—everything from how to introduce yourself (her favorite video, with nearly 600,000 views) to how to say “hello” (250,000 views). She also takes the camera with her on vacation, where she interacts with other Americans around the country; to dinner with friends; even to her wedding, so students can get a feel for what Americans sound like when they talk to each other. Some videos have as few as 10,000 views; others get 40,000 within a few weeks, and keep growing.
“I had an awareness and vocabulary for how to talk about this through opera,” Smith says. “I can hear someone speaking, mimic them, and then say how they need to move their tongue. From music, I understand rhythm, pitch and overall character.”
One, called “How To Improve Spoken American English—Sound Like A Native Speaker,” has reached 1 million students. It is seven minutes long, with a lengthy breakdown of how Americans would pronounce the phrase, “A lot of people ask me if it’s possible to sound like a native speaker:” A-lod-of as one word; no gaps between words; an upward lilt at the end of the phrase. In between closeup shots of Smith, she writes out the phrase, and marks it up with a red pen, similar to the way Kahn Academy writes out math problems on a digital blackboard. Then she asks viewers to put away their papers, and watch her repeat the phrase over and over, practicing along with her. It is simple, endlessly loopable and pleasant to the ear: A Florida native born to midwestern parents, Smith has no discernible inflection to her speech. (See her video on the correct American pronunciation of wooder, uh, water, for an example.)
Rachel’s English is primarily a YouTube business, a category that can include wacky viral videos and straight-up academics. Unlike Kahn Academy—the online math behemoth—it is a for-profit company, though making a profit through YouTube can be difficult. Smith attended YouTube training in New York, and has a network of fellow entrepreneurs on the video site, who share ideas for how to earn an income. Most of Smith’s videos are free while she builds an audience. Some have ads, from which she gets a meager income, after YouTube takes its cut. She sells out around 10 online seminars a year, with 30 students each paying $100 to $800, depending on how many weeks and how much one-on-one interaction they get. Occasionally, she does subscription events—as when she took a two-month road trip last year with her husband, and invited her students to follow along for a mini-tour of the country for $25 each. (About 125 signed up, and another 75 bought the videos afterwards.) She plans to start translating her captions into Chinese and Spanish to gain an even larger audience. Meanwhile, the new ebook is Smith’s first foray outside of video, and one she hopes will prove a lucrative way to grow her business.
“My passion is the content,” Smith says. “I’ve been building an audience, and know there’s a desire for this. Now I’m getting ready to bring in someone with a passion for the business side. That’s where I need to grow next.”