Learning a language the Web 2.0 way

TechCrunch UK recently ignited a debate around education startups in the UK, but it’s quite clear that the biggest Web 2.0 education market is language learning – and that market, obviously, scales internationally. Here, Nicola Robinsonova of Learnitlists.com pens a guest post about the myriad services out there and which ones cut the mustard.

‘Unless there is a law of physics forbidding a technology, then it’s not only possible, it is sure to be built’ (Michio Kaku) – and where the $20 billion second language acquisition market is concerned, this is certanly true. The essential nature of Web 2.0 (in one definition, the active use of technologies such as social networking, WIKIs, blogs and crowd filtration to create web-based communities who collaborate, create and share content) offers great opportunities for language learners.

In an ideal world we would all speak the same language, or, at the very least, be able to download a new language on demand, perhaps directly into our brains via telepathy (advertising suggest that this already happens – ‘speak a new language in 10 minutes’ for example), but, since God smote the Tower of Babbel, and sent us off wandering the earth in distinct linguistic groups, learning a new language has involved some applied effort.

If you are a native English speaker looking to acquire a new language there’s a bounty of resources out there. That you don’t already speak a second language would indicate that the Web 1.0 and pre web techniques available didn’t work so well for you. So… you don’t have time for nightschool, you don’t have the inclination to study from a CD. What is out there in the Web 2.0 world to help you out?

Given that there are 5,000 active languages in the world, the most important factor in determining how useful any specific web 2.0 language service will be to you is simply, do they have your language? There are masses of tools for Spanish, Chinese, French & German… however there isn’t so much around if your were learning Czech, for example. From a business perspective, English is the number one language in the Second Language Acquisition industry – with 750 million learners according to the British Council.

In terms of revenue generation, there are over 100 language sites currently using Google to source advertising, and many sites which offer a straight monthly subscription, monthly payment or freemium model. There are also a growing number which have sourced investment from VC’s – such as Babbel and LiveMocha. Here’s a review of the sites using Web 2.0:

To kick off with bit of learning to take you on holiday: Getawayphrases works with your mobile phone to optimise your recall of words and phrases. Once you’re committed (business model – subscriptions. 9.99 GBP flat fee) you’ll be prompted by your phone throughout the day to revise 7 new words. 4 languages. I hear that their iPhone app will be out later in the summer.

In the iPhone webapp directory already is Cool Gorilla‘s lastminute.com talking translator. 6 languages – showing short phrases grouped by category with no sound, making their directory write-up a little inaccurate. They should have gone to getawayphrases.com.

Looking at the iPhone downloads app store there were more apps available, and it was easier to navigate through them. Under travel or education you could find nine main brands from 0.79 – 7.99 euros. Two broad categories – phrases for immediate use when travelling or flashcard style functions for longer term learning, in a range of languages. Brands included iLingo, Babelingo, Lingolook, Lingou, Lonely Planet, Talking Phrasebook (Coolgorilla), AccelaStudy (Renkara Media Group) and Mywords pod101.com.*

Tools to build a bit more vocabulary:
Learnitlists.com (I declare an interest as this is my startup) provides a widget that can be placed on iPhone, any web page, Facebook & your desktop (xp). Currently covering 24 languages, you are given 10 new words every day, from 1500 common words. Functions include learn (with test), listen, speak, write (with translate tool) & share. Most of the functionality is availabe free of charge (ad supported) . You can subscribe to hear sound from a speaking avatar, or listen to other learners for free. There is no work in setting up the service as the 10 daily words are generated for you.

Another free vocab building service is FlashcardExchange – (a more advanced charged version is also available). You can either input your own data or use cards set up by other users. It only takes a little time to work out how to use the site, though the (oh so web 2.0) three step plan is somewhat misleading. No sound available.

If you’re willing to pay for the software, there are many user generated resources available with the SuperMemo service. This clever software tracks your learning and makes revision materials available in tune with the points at which you are most likely to forget your learning – or rather reclassify memories from short term, filing them in either longer term or probably not important.

IngoLingo will train you in 3,000 words over 3 months, with an opt in nag function. This is a free service but too buggy to let me register. The homepage looked good – shame it didn’t work. I might have just been a bit unlucky.

LingQ – With free, basic, plus and premium services – up to 79 USD per month. For a dedicated learner this site looks like a good bet. I was dissapointed that Czech was not included in the 10 languages offered.

MangoLanguages offer 8 languages, plus 3 ESL (English as a Second Language). A nice, slick presentation of lessons, with text and commentary. The site is somewhat secretive about the price for the premium service option. Very nice, but it did feel a bit like the language lab at my secondary school. If they offered Czech, I’d definitely have tried it.

Language Exchange sites are useful once you’ve got some basic phrases and vocabulary sorted, and claim to be not just another social network category. The sites give learners the ability to create relationships with other learners, and use their newly acquired language skills with native speakers. As well as destination sites, some of these provide a limited range of functionality via mainstream social networks such as Facebook. Critical mass is very important & numbers speak loudly – my criteria would be to find a site with lots of Czech users who wanted to chat/skype or whatever. It would have been nice to have access to this info without having to go through the pain of registering on each site – for example by giving me an indication of how many native Czech speakers were online at the time I visited.

Palabea.net has a focus on social networking and informal tutoring. A beautiful site – really pretty design. They are obviously well supported financially with organised PR and articles in the mainstream UK press. Launched earlier this year, a sustained marketing campaign is necessary to garner the user numbers to compete with longer established brands.

My Language Exchange has been going for eight years and has a million users from 133 countries, speaking 113 languages. Not quite as polished in appearance as others in the sector. Facilities include chatroom, e-mail, user created word games, Skype calls to other learners. You need to buy a gold membership (6 USD for a month) in order to initiate contact with other members.

Italki is a social network of people interested in exchanging their language skills. They have 200,000 users and include 90 languages – though 14 main languages. Their Wiki feature is a section called ‘knowledge’ where any user can add videos, audio and text. They also have a Facebook application but the functionality on the app didn’t seem to have acheived critical mass.

LiveMocha is available in English & Spanish – but also covers French, Hindi, German, and Mandarin Chinese, amongst others. It’s currently (predicatably) in beta and free, but will charge for some services in the future. LiveMocha has oral or written exercises and courses, and a community of users from which to find practice partners. LiveMocha secured 6m dollars investment in January 2008.

Friendsabroad:’speak it, learn it, live it’ is a free language learning network. They say they have millions of users from over 200 countries speaking over 80 languages. Their business model is ad suported. A search for Czech speakers came back with 233 people. The interface is in 5 languages. After searching for potential contacts, you can use skype to talk to other registered users. They have a world lingo powered phrase translator to help if you get stuck talking to your new friend. Revenue from advertising, with some premium features in the pipeline.

Penpalvoice – search for web 2.0 penpals – just launched & yet to reach a critical mass of usership.

Babbel is available in English, German, Spanish, Italian and French. This language community provides user generated content as well as ready made lessons, and has a very web 2.0 look. They recently secured an undisclosed investment.

LingoZone – from the grammar on the homepage I got the distinct impression that English was not the first language for this site. LingoZone is an older site, ad supported (Ukranian wives/Muslim brides for example). There’s community, chat & games. I lurked in the chat room for a moment, where guest1 was commenting to sexidanni that LingoZone seemed quiet these days. LingoZone has a popularity board, as well as a score board. It’s rather web 1.0 in appearance though with web 2.0 functionality.

Voxswap ‘the social network for learning languages’ – ‘most popular users’ get their photo on the homepage. Chat, Forums and youtube video content available, with a VOIP coming soon. 2884 users signed up. 22 of them spoke Czech, but the system didn’t let me filter for those who were fluent, rather than beginner level.

What is striking about traditional SLA (second language acquisition) companies is their seeming lack of interest in Web 2.0 technology. All the usual suspects have sites where you can buy books and courses on CD – some offer free downloads (which transpire to be transcripts of material already purchased, or less).

Even in terms of advertising they are notable only for their absence – Natively is the only SLA with a heavy presence on Facebook (downloadable language courses, with no preview, for an undefined fee – alongside the opportunity to pay them for a place in the US Greencard lottery). Where is the Rosetta Stone Facebook app? The Berlitz chat room? The Michel Thomas screensaver?

(If you’re interested in making a quick tour of the above sites, as well as some more old school resources, I’ve put a tour together using jogtheweb.

iPhone Travel downloads:

• Beijing games mini phrase book – (100 phrases with sound) being the cheapest at .79 euros.

• iLingo (by Talking Panda) French/Mandarin, German, Spanish, Cantonese, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, French, Japanese, Korean 7.99 euros. 400 words & phrases with sound.

• Babelingo (Alta Vida) 4.99 euros, 300 phrases, 7 languages. No sound.

• Lingolook Italy, Japan, China, France 3.99 euros, flashcards and phrases.

• Lingou (Edovia) English, German, Spanish & Italian audio, with 13 other languages. 2.39 euros.

• Lonely Planet Phrasebook – Cantonese, Czech, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese. 7,99 euros. 600 phrases. With audio (version 2 better quality audio)

• Talking Phrasebook (Coolgorilla) ‘too busy to learn a new language? Download the lastminute.com talking phrasebook and let your iPhone or iPod touch do the talking’. Great idea, but the app didn’t seem to be finished before it went life – with no info or pics available in the directory.

Iphone Education downloads.

AccelaStudy (Renkara Media Group) 11.99. 1200 words in 41 subject areas in the format of flipcards. Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian and Spanish available. Mywords pod101.com (Innovative Language Learning LLC) 7.99 euros Japanese, German, Arabic, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Russian. Released on the 12th August this year, the application advocates learning 10 words a day – and so do I.