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NBA stars, celebs help fans learn English on website

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Rising New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin has not only sparked NBA basketball interest in Taiwan, he may also inspire fans to learn English, according to people at the website "English, baby!"

With 1.6 million registered members and about a million hits a month, the educational website (www.englishbaby.com) has been using National Basketball Association players and celebrities to draw visitors to their English lessons, taught by guest stars who explain idioms associated with their work.

"We're really excited about that," Jason Simms, of English, baby!, said in a telephone interview from his Portland, Oregon office about the emergence of Lin on the NBA stage.

"There are lots of businesses out there that are tied to the enthusiasm for the NBA in Asia. We, like many people, were very disappointed when Yao (Ming) retired. It seemed like that might put a damper on that trajectory," he said about the Chinese star who played for the Houston Rockets.

But thanks to Lin, the 23-year-old Taiwanese-American sports sensation and media darling who propelled the struggling Knicks to several victories and sparked a craze dubbed "Linsanity," the trajectory may continue.

"We're really excited that Jeremy Lin is back to connecting the conversation between Taiwan and China and the United States about basketball."

China makes up the biggest audience for the service, comprising about 25 percent of the site's members, followed by Turkey at 7.1 percent and India, Brazil, Egypt and the United States. Taiwan is No.7 on the list at 2.2 percent.

John Hayden, who taught English in Japan and decided students advanced faster armed with cultural, as well as language fluency, started the company 10 years ago.

NBA players including All-Stars Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, and the New York Nicks' Carmelo Anthony, and Shane Battier, of the Miami Heat, and Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks have participated along with singer Sheryl Crow, DJ Girl Talk, and rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.

"A lot of players just perk up at the mention of China because they do interviews every day at media sessions during the season, but they don't get a lot of chances to speak directly to the fans in China," said Simms, who catches players at practice when their teams are in Portland to play the Trail Blazers.

"A lot of these players do tours and promotional events in China in the summer, but during the season they are mostly speaking to the American audience. This gives them a chance to reach out internationally."

The strategy seems to be a hit with teachers and students. The website receives lots of emails and comments, according to Simms.

"People say, 'Thank you for teaching us the real English. This is awesome. To know what this stuff means, I feel more confident I can talk like a real basketball fan,'" he explained.

"Sometimes we get stuff from teachers saying, 'I brought this video into the class and they really liked it.' As an educational outlet, our goal is to be complementary to a classroom experience."

(Reporting By Larry Fine in New York; editing by Patricia Reaney)