This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 3 April 2014.
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When it comes to language, Europe is in a unique position. In a small geographical area, connected by a common market and to some extent common culture, we have access to nearly all the world’s most important languages: English, of course, but German, Spanish, Portuguese and French all play major roles in global trade, too. And the European Commission is keen to get people learning: a year ago, it announced the lofty goal of making every European speak at least three languages, calling this multilingualism strategy “mother tongue plus two”.
But European directives do not persuade people to learn. Before starting my career as an education technology blogger, I worked as an independent language coach. I say ‘coach’, rather than ‘tutor’, because I always saw my role to be that of a motivator, guiding the learner towards the finish line. Anyone who’s tried learning a language knows that, without the will to keep pushing through, you won’t be successful. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why language learning does not work well in schools.
From my years in the trenches, I know that there are only two reasons people feel motivated to learn a language. One is personal pleasure or fulfillment; the other is a practical need to do so, generally for economic reasons. This second reason was the driving force behind the huge demand for German lessons in southern European countries during the peak of the Euro crisis in 2012. The Goethe-Institut saw an increase in signups of up to 35% in Portugal, 20% in Spain and 14% in Italy; Naples saw a local spike of 34%.
Naturally, where there is demand, there is opportunity, and there have long been firms which used technology to teach languages. Rosetta Stone, for example, built its position as a market leader by taking its traditional book-and-cassette-tape-based instruction into the digital age. Over the years its software has certainly gotten more sophisticated, adding voice recognition to train the learners’ pronunciation (with mixed results). Still, though, there was something missing: the interaction with real native speakers.
Then a pair of websites changed everything. Facebook, the first truly global social network, connected people from around the globe in one giant community, while Wikipedia constituted the first altruistic global crowdsourcing site. Around 2008, a new breed of language learning startups combining insights from both these sites appeared almost simultaneously: the likes of Livemocha, Busuu and Babbel.
The key element that had led to the startups’ early success was their global communities, which provided two core features: access to native speakers, for speaking practice; and peer-to-peer learning, in which community leaders correct the written exercises of other learners. Those two features used to be very hard and expensive to implement. But, thanks to social networks, crowdsourcing and the popularity of voice-over-IP services like Skype, they are now part of everyday life for most people.
These firms showed that it was possible to turn language learning into a social experience, just like hanging out on Facebook or contributing to projects like Wikipedia. Around 2010, the next tidal wave arrived: the mobile internet. When Busuu launched its first mobile applications in October 2010, the community started to grow like wild fire; to date it’s reached over 40 million users. (Livemocha, by contrast, missed out on this trend entirely, and ended up in a fire sale to none other than Rosetta Stone.)
The rise of mobile brought about another shift in society. Now we are all connected 24/7, the limits of our mental bandwidth become more obvious. We feel overwhelmed by all the content that keeps pouring in via social networks, email, SMS and chat apps. Language apps thus face some serious competition for user attention.
Enter edutainment. Duolingo, the rising star in the language learning space, is all about entertaining its users, by making language learning a game. “Our users aren’t hardcore,” Duolingo founder Luis Von Ahn told technology blog re/code. “They are procrastinating and don’t want to feel as bad, so they open our app.”
This strategy seems to work pretty well. Where Busuu needed six years to go from zero to 40 million users, Duolingo reached 25 million in a little over two years. Since the firm raised its $20 million (£12 million) Series C round in February, it’s become clear Von Ahn aspires for global domination of the language learning space, telling one interviewer, “Our main goal going forward is to become the de facto way to learn a language”.
In contrast to its competitors, who have traditionally been reluctant to share hard data, Duolingo is pretty outspoken about key figures. For example, of those 25 million users, 50% are currently active. The firm also commissioned a study in late 2012 to test the efficiency of its product. The research team came to the conclusion that “a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need between 26 and 49 hours (or 34 hours on average) to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish”. It’s all pretty impressive.
Of course, you need to take studies like this with a grain of salt, but nonetheless it raises a question: if Duolingo or other language learning products are so effective, then why don’t we use them in schools and universities? As Von Ahn states, “We figured out that we have more people learning language on a given day on Duolingo than in the whole US school system”.
In other words, the flipped classroom model seems to fit perfectly with language learning. There is no need to learn vocabulary or grammar in the classroom: this is the easiest way to drain a learner of all enthusiasm. Innovative startups like Busuu or Duolingo have instead focused on coming up with ways of teaching this dry material in a fun and engaging way. That way, time in class could be spent on bringing the language to life, and showing the real benefits of being multilingual. That’s how you keep learners motivated.
Picture “English Dictionaries” by John Keogh, Some Rights Reserved