language learning

Language Learning needs to be Flipped

EducationInvestor April 2014This 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%.

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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

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • andrew

    I’d need to be convinced these figures actually mean something in terms of language learning, as all my (limited) forays so far into these sites have not really shown any hard evidence (sometimes the “communities” with supposedly millions of learners helping each other are more like social chat applications or dating sites, sometimes these communities are not there at all). But a very interesting aticle Kirsten. And what I’m really interested to know is what the actual business data of these sites is : what’s their cash turnover and are they making a profit, rather than just being carried along by what seems to be endless amounts of risk capital and plenty of marketing hype. Because if they are, it’s a sign online learning can become a sustainable business model. Then the next question will be : does it actually work better than other bricks and mortar forms of language learning : motivation, you’re quite right, is the key – so sites like wiQiz seem to have opted for an ambassador to represent them (The very popular Jason T Levine, who travels around the world promoting his very motivating “hip hop” approach to memorization and his ideas about how online learning is sweeping away traditional approaches). The paradox is of course that it’s precisely a popular teacher, the language learning equivalent of Robbins, not an application, that is getting people excited about learning.

  • Eugène Ernoult

    Great article Kirsten. Motivation is clearly the key in any learning activity. I also think that language learning products and schools are complementary for a good language learning.

  • bnleez

    Thanks Kirsten for sharing your views and making me reflect on what it means to learn an additional language.

    I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective, if I may.

    When you say, “…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”…you are presuming that the purpose of assessment (between formal and informal learning) is the same. And since the purposes are usually not the same, and since assessment drives instruction (for better or for worse), well then, there lies the problem.

    Your argument, as I understand it, seems to be for incidental learning over intentional learning and/or perhaps implicit learning over explicit learning. I too am attracted to the benefits of incidental and implicit learning, which both warrant a closer look, both in formal (especially) and informal learning contexts. But we need to shift the narrative to include the role of assessment in order to conduct a more nuanced discussion around how, why, when, etc. language learners interact in an additional language.

    Stating the obvious, the purpose of assessment among language learners from Livemocha, etc. (informal learning contexts) usually has nothing to do with a standardized test used to gain employment and/or to further one’s studies (like in formal educational contexts). But beyond that, also we have the issue of “engagement”.

    Clearly, mobile learning, edutainment, social communities, etc. are fashioned around the notion of engagement. But engagement is only part of the puzzle. Learning also involves efficacy and efficiency. That is, language learning depends on the purpose(s) of assessment and the impact they have on instruction within a learning environment that is not only engaging, but also effective and efficient.

    So, when I hear phrases like, “…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”, I feel that this directive to persuade people to learn can be short-sided if we fail to discuss the purpose of assessment (in terms of engagement, efficacy, and efficiencies). Yes, it’s complex.

    In Mexico, in most cases, the flipped classroom model would not fit perfectly with language learning, although we have the technology and infrastructure required in many cases. What is missing, a lot of times, is the culture required to flip a classroom. Speaking more generally, any institution who uses formal, summative assessments to measure learning (and you may critique this reality all you want…I know I have), will usually not embrace engaging learning experiences only, until more (objective) empirical evidence becomes available in how edutainment, etc. measure up in terms of learning effectiveness and efficiencies.

    Based on the information presented here, I feel your research question is slightly off the mark“if Duolingo or other language learning products are so effective, then why don’t we use them in schools and universities?”

    I would frame it as follows, “if Duolingo or other language learning products are so ENGAGING, then why don’t we use them in schools and universities?”

    At the same time, I would invite those who do not have a financial interest in each one of these businesses to research topics related to the following…

    How do language learners increase their vocabulary (grammar, pronunciation, etc.) by interacting with others in Duolingo (Livemocha, etc.)? Among other questions that relate to effective and efficient language learning/teaching, not to mention assessment.

    Speaking as an educator/researcher: I think the narrative should be around independent, empirical evidence that bridges informal and formal learning contexts involving the teaching and learning of an additional language.

    Speaking as a business owner: I think the best thing for my bottom line would be to encourage independent researchers to look at the purpose of assessment within my organization as well as instruction (i.e., teaching and learning) in terms of engagement AND efficacy and effectiveness.