BBC Learning English celebrates 70th anniversary

L to R: John Foreman, BBC European Service, 1943, and Neil Edgeller, BBC Learning English John Foreman in 1943 was part of the European Service, and team leader Neil Edgeller in a studio at NBH today

Imagine saying a simple 'good morning' on Facebook and getting 400 replies back. What celebrity league would you be in with that kind of fervent following?

As it turns out, it's not just celebrities like One Direction's Harry Styles who can command that kind of adoration. The only slightly less glamorous BBC Learning English team has a legion of loyal followers who love nothing more than to engage with their 'teachers', replying in their droves to a simple 'hello' posted on Facebook.

Never is there an argument, a disagreement, a swear word or the ugly plague of the internet, the troll. The audience feedback and interaction is almost unbelievably pleasant and positive, explains Paul Scott, the editor who heads up the department.

He's in a reflective mood because his department, which is part of the World Service, has just reached a significant milestone, its 70th anniversary of teaching people around the world English.

'Massively popular'
Feifei Cheng Feifei Feng came to London from Xi'an, China, where she studied English language and literature

It's not a role to be downplayed, even if it has a whiff of the old British Empire about it. English language teaching is massively popular,' says Scott. 'The fact that the BBC does this is very positive for its image and it provides a structure for audiences to chat and communicate.' It's not just people abroad who use the Learning English website either, with a significant number of people viewing it from inside the UK.

The numbers speak for themselves. The content - all available on the website - is a mixture of video, audio and text-based materials, averaging 14.5m direct page views a month and 1.6m unique users. Through partner websites, it averages 36.5m page views per month.

'What always impresses me is how little we have to do for our audiences to get quite a big response,' adds Scott. To put it simply, it's the kind of relationship almost any publisher or editor would kill for.

Picture it

To celebrate the 70th anniversary, the team asked their audience to send in a picture of themselves with a caption about why English mattered to them for a photo gallery. About 150 people from 80 different countries replied after seeing the plea on Facebook and Twitter.

70 years of English

English lessons
  • BBC Learning English was formed in July 1943 when it began formally as the European Service "to supply the continental demand for English lessons"
  • Originally a radio service, programmes were broadcast via shortwave. TV followed by 1962. Standout shows include Follow Me for Chinese learners and children's series Muzzy in Gondoland
  • In 1996, the department launched its first online product, Words, Words, Words, a news-related spinoff based on a successful radio series. In 1997 it launched its first bilingual business English courses
  • In 2005, it introduced the first free, interactive online English language teaching soap opera, The Flatmates.
  • Award-winning series The Teacher launched in 2008 as a product designed for the YouTube generation
  • The English We Speak, a 3-minute weekly podcast, averages 1.4 million downloads every month, often ranking no. 1 in the BBC's weekly podcast list
  • Words in the News, a long-running programme, is reversioned in 12 languages
  • Flatmates was one of the first programmes requested by a BBC partner in Burma
  • In 2014, the department will launch its first free, formal English Language Teaching online course

'Social media is changing so fast,' says Feifei Feng, one of 11 people working for the team. 'People's expectations are increasing by the minute and can be so demanding, and information can be shared in seconds with millions of people.'

The producer believes this presents challenges about the kinds of messages you send out, which should be spontaneous, a bit edgy, but not get you into trouble or get misinterpreted. 'It's not something you plan for hours. It's supposed to be more relaxed, a more personal and affectionate way of speaking to your audience.'

Lifelong learning

Feng is originally from Xi'an China, a city of about 8m people, famous for its terracotta warriors. She came to London in 2006 to finish a master's and joined BBC Learning English the following year. She's one of several people on the team who speaks more than one language. She started learning English at the age of 13, so she knows what learners want from content.

Despite speaking flawless and near-accentless English, the 30-year-old believes you never stop learning about the world's most popular language. 'I don't think there is an end. There is always something that someone says and I think, Ooh, that's an interesting phrase. She uses some of these slang phrases and idioms for The English We Speak, a three-minute weekly podcast that averages 1.4m downloads every month and is incredibly successful with English language learners.


Feng used to travel to China about two or three times a year to meet her audience in person, but that has dwindled after the department had to make serious cutbacks. The World Service has a savings target of £43m to be achieved this year, a response to the government reducing its grant-in-aid by 16%. It will also move into the licence fee next year and needs to reduce costs.

A total of 73 jobs were earmarked for closure, including 13 in English Language Teaching, which took the biggest hit. Its focus is now on the public service provision.

The cuts come at a time when there are many more people offering English language teaching through a proliferation of websites - a development of which Scott is well aware. 'If you go back 30 or 40 years, it was us and a few other international broadcasters doing this, so it was easier for us to control and capture those audiences,' the editor explains.

BBC summer school students at Bush House The BBC used to run summer schools for people who wanted to learn English. In 1959, over 80 men and women from 18 different countries came to London. Here, Norwegian students see the control room at Bush House.
Modern challenges

Scott talks about being more responsive and flexible to compete with newer rivals. He also admits that there's some copying of the BBC model. 'I'm not critical of this,' he says. 'I have looked at other people's non-educational stuff and thought about how we could adapt it - so I think that's part and parcel of the process. But I think the challenge is that we're always there with our competitors.'

Part of this requires making the content easier to access on any device or platform, including smartphones. Next year the site will go through an upgrade so that its content will automatically adjust to the screen on which it's viewed.

'The big thing for me is not that we're always on the cutting edge of technology,' the editor argues. 'I think that's a mistake. I think what our audience needs is solid, strong, educational opportunities, not the latest, greatest technological tool.'

It's a formula that has worked for thousands, maybe even millions, of people. As someone from Thailand put it for the special photo gallery, 'English is not my enemy anymore.' It's a message that needs no translation.

  • BBC Learning English has made a series of features for its 70th anniversary, including a 70-second video with a group of students. See the content here.


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