Future of Language Learning EDitorial EDUKWEST

The Grim Future of Language Learning

Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

My personal journey in the edtech space, which eventually led me to become an edtech blogger,  started with language coaching. I never liked the term “teacher” or “tutor” — for me there are very distinct tactical, motivational, and energizing components to doing it right, similar to what a good football or personal coach does.

Over the years, I have gotten to know a lot of fellow self-employed folks in the language learning space, and it became clear that many (or most) of them are fighting a lost war against decreasing lesson prices and increasing competition from cloud-based services and products. Of course, there are still niches that can’t be served by software or language exchange communities, but those are rare and call for a very specific skill set and quality level.

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General Averseness

Let’s face it, language learning is not a desirable pastime for the masses. Most people learn a language because they need to, not because they want to. Therefore their approach is goal-oriented in terms of time and money spent. Personal lessons aren’t performing on both axis; they take more time, are usually hard to fit into a busy schedule, and they tend to be more expensive than a lesson package bought at one of the online providers.

And part of this averseness is probably rooted in bad experiences with language learning in school or college. We all know the conversation: “Ah, yes. I had (French, German, Spanish) for a couple of years in (high school, college, university). Unfortunately, I forgot everything. I just remember (bonjour, guten tag, buenos dias).

This eventually leads to the general notion that language learning in the classic form is basically useless, and that the money to keep up the language offerings could be spent better elsewhere on campus. Knowing English these days is more than enough anyways, right?

With that in mind, it becomes obvious why language courses in a school, college, or university setting are struggling to attract enough students in order to stay relevant. There might be exceptions for languages like Chinese and Arabic, but all in all, languages have been the stepchild of public education and academia for a long time.

Signs of Decay

Though I urge everyone to learn at least one foreign language, I also believe that modern technology and convenience will eventually kill the classic form of language learning for the mass market. One very recent example of this trend is Rosetta Stone’s new strategy.

What used to be *the* language learning company, famous for airport kiosks, yellow boxes, and packages of CDs, is now evolving into a lean, cloud-based learning company. The emphasis is on the lost word “language.” In the press release about the acquisition of Lexia Learning and a related article in the Wall Street Journal, Rosetta Stone CEO Steve Swad states:

“This acquisition is another step in the transformation of Rosetta Stone. We’re moving beyond language; we’re leveraging technology; we`re growing our business in new and meaningful ways. And we’re positioning this company to change the face of learning as we know it.”

Interestingly, a survey showed that consumers already think of Rosetta Stone as more than just  language learning products, which Swad sees as “brand permission to extend.” But when one of the biggest language learning brands looks for other verticals, it means that language learning itself is not enough anymore; there is no room for growth, and probably even a decline in opportunities to sell premium software products.

Technology, and The Promise of Less Agony and Faster Results

New services like Duolingo are also part of the equation. Not only does Duolingo disrupt the business model of Rosetta Stone (since the product is offered for free), but it also seems to be more efficient than college classes or Rosetta Stone.

According to a study published in January, people who learned with Duolingo only took 34 hours to achieve the same level as someone who took the first semester of Spanish in college. Rosetta Stone learners took an average of 55 to 60 hours.

And now companies from outside of the space, like Google, have also started working on products that are going to further eat away at classic language learning. In one of my early posts for Big Think, I predicted that in the future tourists are going to have shades with built-in translation technology for street signs, menus, etc. Google featured this in one of their promotional videos for Google Glass.

Startups like Babelverse have also created a niche for themselves by offering a personal translator/interpreter via mobile devices. You simply pick the language of the country you’re in, call your interpreter, and then have a conversation with the local. This would be pretty useful at a doctor’s office or pharmacy. Google is currently working on their next version of Instant Translate that is going to automate this service. According to Android VP Hugo Barra, the system is “near perfect” in a controlled environment.

It might sound like sci-fi, but at the current rate, we’re going to have working technologies in our ears and in front of our eyes that will make language learning pretty much irrelevant for most people. Needless to say, this will also change how foreign speaking students and faculty become integrated on campus.

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