How viral videos are catapulting English-language instructors to Internet fame

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-7 19:18:01

A Chinese student watches an English-teaching video by Daniel Mathieu, also known as Wang Badan. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Question: How do you put an English teacher on the map?

Correct answer: Make them an Internet celebrity.

Known in Chinese as wanghong (literally "Internet red"), online celebrities are China's latest obsession, so much so that they've even penetrated an area most students would describe as the opposite of fun: learning English.

Among the latest stars in this brave new world of online celebrity is Malik, a Chinese finance student in New York who became an accidental phenomenon when he posted his first video on January 19. Malik, a natural ham, was having a lazy day at home when he decided to shoot a video of himself imitating different American accents. That night, he posted it on Sina Weibo and mentioned it to a couple of friends before going to bed.

When he woke up the next day, he found that his followers had grown from two (both his friends) to more than 500, and that the video had been viewed more than 300,000 times.

"I was freaking out," he said. "I was like, wow, there's something going on." Within that week, he had accrued around 100,000 followers. Malik, who now has about 243,000 followers on Sina Weibo, told Metropolitan that he was surprised that such goofy videos could go viral in China. "The first video was really amateurish. I didn't know how to edit or add subtitles to it."

Malik speculates that the reason behind his videos' sudden popularity might lie in the desire among young Chinese to learn English.

"People wonder how a non-native speaker like me is able to impersonate different accents," he said. "They're curious and want to know how to do that."

From there, it wasn't much of a leap to realize that this could mean the start of a new career path - that of an English teacher who disseminates his lessons through viral videos.

Though China is filled with expats and returning overseas Chinese working as English teachers, only a few of them have found the golden ticket to success - online popularity. Metropolitan interviewed several of them to discover their secret.

Young Chinese audiences often prefer English-teaching videos with fun content and information on cultural differences. Photo: IC

Using videos to teach 

"Many young Chinese people feel really stressed out about learning English. Unlike math and chemistry, which can be improved through solving as many problems as possible, English is a comprehensive subject, which makes it harder to learn for many," Malik said.

After his first video went viral, Malik began to think critically about what his videos could offer that other people's couldn't. After studying a range of other Chinese video bloggers, he concluded that he had found a unique niche that bucked the usual trend of monologues about the minor inconveniences of life.

"I think I want to continue doing videos in the future. In addition to being entertaining, videos are probably the best way to communicate with people on the Chinese Internet, since nowadays a lot of people don't read or listen anymore, but they love to watch."

Most of his followers are students between the ages of 16 and 25. Some of them want to do well on their College English Test (CET), while others are looking at studying overseas.

"Apparently although our country is developing fast, a lot of people still don't know much about the foreign world," Malik said. "That's part of the reason why foreigners are still so popular in China. It's an indication that people are extremely curious about foreign cultures."

In his videos, he talks about life overseas, cultural differences between China and the US, as well as social phenomena that he wants to share his opinions on.

Malik says it's important that even lighthearted videos convey a message, "something to put in your mind." One of the videos he's most proud of profiles nine types of Chinese overseas students in the US.

Malik says he came up with the idea because, in recent years, the media has helped propagate the stereotype that all Chinese students studying overseas are irresponsible fuerdai (or "second-generation rich") who spend their money extravagantly and run people over in sports cars. However, the reality, Malik says, is very different.

"As an overseas student myself, I felt like it was my responsibility to use my small share of online influence to show what we are really like," he said. "Most of these students are just regular people chasing their own dreams, and the video resonated with a lot of overseas students."


Popular English-teaching video bloggers Daniel Mathieu and Malik     Photos: Courtesy of Daniel Mathieu and Malik

Catering to a big market 

While his initial plan was to work in investment, Malik now thinks his future may lie in language education.

"Since I started this blog, I realized that I can go above and beyond and I can influence a lot of people."

While the feeling of achievement is a major drive for him, he's also motivated by the huge potential of China's English education market.

According to the Ministry of Education, 2015 saw a total of 523,700 students traveling overseas to study, marking a 13.9 percent increase over 2014, the Xinhua News Agency reported in March.

Another incentive is what looks to be a bright financial future for China's wanghong: last month, Papi Jiang, a 29-year-old drama student widely known as China's "first Internet celebrity of 2016," signed a 12 million yuan ($1.8 million) sponsorship deal, inspiring scores of other video bloggers like Malik.

"It means we are able to not only have fun, but also do real business," he said. "Society's recognition of Internet celebrities is changing."

As for other English teachers considering the video blogging path, Malik suggests that popularity is often the result of a strong personal style and a bit of luck.

"Many students in China are very frustrated about English learning, and think of it as a dry [process]," he says. "So I think instead of standing there teaching the pronunciation or the usage of different words and terms, they might include cultural factors and fun elements [in the videos]." 

Between entertainment and professionalism

Among his fans, Malik estimates that only about 10,000 or so are watching to learn English, while the rest are just there for the entertainment.

Therefore, his strategy is to keep posting fun videos on Sina Weibo, and to do more professional teaching on his WeChat account, which is called "Makeshu Yingyu" (Uncle Malik's English) where he has more than 20,000 followers.

The idea, he said, is to combine his popularity and professionalism.

In contrast to Malik's unexpected fame is the more calculated success of Daniel Mathieu, otherwise known as Wang Badan, an online English teacher who's released almost 100 videos since October 2015.

Among his most popular videos are a series in which he puts on a Taiwanese accent and corrects Chinese people's Chinglish. In another widely viewed video, he delivers a mini-lesson on "cool"  ways of greeting others other than saying "hello." His best-loved video depicts him playing a Chinese student calling an English-language school for a sample class.

While his videos have gained great popularity on and (video-sharing platforms in China that are mostly aimed at a younger audience), with the hottest ones garnering half-a-million views, Mathieu says he doesn't have plans to shift his focus to those platforms.

Videos like these, he said, were a kind of experiment to see if posting more entertaining content would bring more people to his WeChat account.

"And the answer is yes, but they are not really serious about learning English," he said. Now his WeChat account boosts 120,000 followers, and there are another 110,000 on his page. "I don't really want to be a wanghong. I just want to teach a lot of people English. Our goal is not to be super entertaining and then be forgotten in a week."

So, it's important to make videos based on "dry goods," referring to dry but useful knowledge, he said. "The key to being popular is making content that the market needs and people need to see, and then making it sharable." 

The future of English teaching

Among Mathieu's fans is Wallace Zhong, 18, a university freshman who's currently cramming for the upcoming CET tests.

His major objective at the moment is passing the test, and preparing for his future career. "Right now, everyone is saying that English is of great importance to finding a job."

Zhong says his two biggest resources for learning English are his college English classes and foreign films.

"We don't get a lot of chances to meet foreigners and to really learn native English, so watching those short videos might be more helpful," Zhong told Metropolitan.

When searching for such videos online, Zhong says he has two criteria: that the teacher is a native speaker, and that they are hilarious.

"The English lessons I took were really boring and memorizing words was such a painful task," he said. "But Wang Badan's videos have removed some of my prejudice against studying English.

"I can't say I've learned a lot from his videos. But I can say he helped me pick up some interest in the subject." Zhong added that when he enjoys a video, he's even willing to make a small monetary contribution to support their work.

Zhong represents a large number of Malik and Mathieu's followers - young, curious about foreign cultures, and highly motivated to learn English, but picky about the content.

In an effort to address to some of his followers' most frequently asked questions, such as "How can I improve my listening?", "How can I sound like a native speaker?" and ultimately "How do I learn English?", Mathieu plans to launch a series of open-course videos that last 20 to 25 minutes each.

"It's just that no one has ever taught them. I want to be the guy who teaches them this," he said. A University of Pittsburgh graduate who majored in Chinese, Mathieu came to China in 2011. After settling down in Xiamen, Fujian Province, he taught English offline for two years, and then started a company to develop apps. After the app business turned out to be unsuccessful, he started the Wang Badan account.

This time, he is confident that his efforts will pay off. In the six months since he launched the Wang Badan brand, Mathieu has already raised half-a-million yuan ($77,200) in investment.

He's also received funds from viewers. Through WeChat's "reward" function, which allows users to make contributions to bloggers who they like, one of Mathieu's most popular videos has received about 3,800 yuan, including 400 yuan from a single die-hard fan.

Malik is also taking aim at turning a profit in China's growing language-learning market. He plans to fly to Beijing in May to do further market research. 

"As I chase my dream [of teaching English], it's not like I will not be rewarded," he said. "The market is good and I believe it won't go badly for me."

Newspaper headline: Trending teachers

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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