It all started with deep concern against the constant use of grammatically incorrect phrases, such as “Keep smile,” “Worthed,” and “Thanks God,” by less-than-fluent speakers of English on TV shows and social media platforms.
Understanding the importance of mastering the international language in an era of globalization, Retno “Neno” Sofyananiek, a teacher in Denpasar, Bali, started an initiative to help Indonesians improve their English proficiency online — for free.
Named “English Tips For You” (ET4U), or “@EnglishTips4U” among Twitter users, the effort has helped 77,715 followers understand tenses, idioms and pronunciation through their series of kultwit — online lectures — since its establishment in 2011.
“As an English teacher, I have this urge to constantly correct people’s mistakes. But it was impossible to correct them one by one. So I decided to conduct kultwit with my personal Twitter handle on topics like grammar, idioms, common mistakes, vocabulary and much more,” Neno explained.
As she gained more followers, Neno created @EnglishTips4U and moved her lessons to the new Twitter handle.
Gradually, however, Neno began to see the need to share the workload with other people.
“So I invited a friend from college, Firdaus Andrianto, to help me. But then our followers — known as ‘Fellas’ — began to ask for the lessons on a daily basis.”
Neno then began to recruit account administrators to join her team, which now consists of seven active members.
The social media platform, especially Twitter, plays a crucial role in operating ET4U.
Each admin gives scheduled lectures once a day on planned topics. These online tutors are encouraged to maintain friendly interaction with their fellas and to reply any questions related to English.
Neno has found Twitter to be a fitting platform for the initiative as it enables real-time interaction with students, but it also helps that Indonesians also happen to be one of the world’s most active Twitter users.
“It’s true that unlike face-to-face lessons, Twitter limits the learning process; we probably don’t touch on all aspects of English, but by conducting sessions every day on different topics, our followers become motivated to learn and take control of their own studies,” Neno said.
In running its daily operation, ET4U involves volunteers who live in different parts of the world, from Jakarta and Denpasar, to London. As their discussions are only conducted online, many of the program’s admins have never even met each other.
However, the absence of an office has not been an issue for the online tutors.
“We’re Internet and social media freaks. Technology connects and bonds us. The toughest challenge [we face] is when we need to have meetings and organize events, or when we have a deadline, for example.”
Though the tutors are not financially compensated, volunteering to teach English online has its own perks.
“Simply put, sharing is learning,” said admin Patricia Wulandari, a translator who lives in Jakarta.
“By sharing our knowledge, we actually learning something,” she added.
Her sentiments were echoed by fellow admins who felt strongly that volunteering their time and skills for ET4U has not only served as a learning experience in itself, but the realization that their efforts have an impact on others, is unrivaled.
“I remember when a follower came up to us and said she wished lessons in schools were more like ours,” said admin Savitri Sastrawan, an art student in London. “That was when I first realized that we had truly achieved something.”
With a continuously growing number of followers, the next step seemed almost natural: in July, ET4U’s “Things Your English Books Don’t Tell You” hit bookstores nationwide to quench Indonesia’s thirst for learning English. The book was launched with a Twitter photo competition for the Fellas.
Intended to be an antithesis to the ubiquitous English textbooks found in the country’s schools and bookstores that boast “instant” results, “‘Things Your English Books Don’t Tell You’ makes no such promise,” explained Neno.
Instead, the book provides tips and tidbits on aspects of the English language that are rarely discussed in textbooks, such as common mistakes, confusing words, slang and “Indonesian English,” Neno added.
In a country where much of its residents seem to be unaware of the urgency of mastering English — the Ministry of Education is brewing plans to eradicate the language from elementary school — ET4U and its volunteers are part of a handful of groups who have decided to bring matters into their own hands by taking full advantage of Indonesia’s booming world social media in attempting to preserve the learning of English.