Monthly Archives: January 2013

SNL’s Rossetta Stone Thai Skit and Learner Aspirations

This SNL skit got one thing right: adult language learners have diverse learning aspirations. Some want to get back to their roots; some want to communicate with foreign friends and co-workers; and some are doing it in order to broaden their perspectives. But traditionally, all of these aspirations were obscured by the industrial-age language learning economics that thrived on mass production and mass markets. Learners with different aspirations and goals were given the same set of books and enrolled in the same kind of classes. Enter web 2.0, the old economics no longer needed to apply. Innovative learning solutions can offer a great degree of personalization to help learners pick and choose what they want to learn and achieve their specific goals. But too much freedom and personalization might not be a good thing. It might result in haphazard learning pathways and hit and miss results. I think the challenge for educators and entrepreneurs very much lies in how do we provide personalization but ensure that learners achieve their goals instead of going astray.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons in this regard from my work at ChinesePod. When we started in 2005, we wanted to create content that the adult learner could immediately use. Why force a learner to go through 10 chapters of content before learning how to talk to a cab driver or ask where the bathroom was? In order to support the self-study learner and their varied levels and interests, we adopted a very modular approach in our academic design. It means that learners at one level would be able to study any lesson in that level without prior knowledge of an earlier lesson. Learners loved this approach and the freedom it offered. And to this day, I live by the modular approach. But I also see many students get lost in a sea of content (2000+ lessons and counting). The fact is the majority of students need hand holding and structure. So we’ve spent the past 2 years trying to make sense of the massive body of content on ChinesePod and try to bring the necessary structure to it. I can tell you that retro fitting a very mature product isn’t easy. And given all the lessons I’ve learned, I feel that personalization and structure could be balanced. Here are a few things that I wish I knew:

  • Personalization isn’t randomness. It should be driven by high frequency and relevance. You need to know the type of learners you are dealing with and their different aspirations. Dividing them into key personas and map out their goals are crucial. It will help you determine the kind of high frequency language and situations they need. So in many ways, it’s a customer discovery process.
  • Offer structure in your courses, but modular lessons within courses. One problem I have with traditional language books is that lesson 5 is usually a significant jump from lesson 1, making it hard for most adult students to follow and remix the content. One way to balance that is to offer modular lessons within courses so that students will smoothly transition and be able to remix content that better suits their needs. Of course, this isn’t saying lessons should be modular in a way that there’s no progression at all. But easing off the transition is really important.
  • Balance function and grammar. I am rather pragmatic when it comes to grammar. I feel that if a grammar structure is not going to be used by the student, they probably won’t learn it by heart. So let’s expose them to grammar that they actually use for the purpose that they are trying to achieve. Start with natural, high frequency language and distill the grammar structure from it instead of the other way around.
  • Always give students structure to fall back on while encourage them to venture out and personalize. The way we do it on OpenLanguage is to compile courses that chart out a clear road of progression while having extra content in the library that students could search by level, topic and function. In short, a student should never not know what lesson they should study next nor should they not have the ability to study a lesson that’s more relevant to them.

These are some of my quick thoughts on understanding learner aspirations and designing language learning materials to help them reach their goals. As more and more educators curate their own material, I hope the lessons I’ve learned would be helpful to you. And I’ve love to hear your thoughts!

Spanish is on the Rise – High Demand Comes From Asia

Every January the Instituto Cervantes comes out with its Yearbook, an analysis of the state of Spanish in the world. The Cervantes Institute is a language school and cultural center endorsed by the Spanish government. Many countries have such or very similar institutions to promote their languages, e.g. Alliance Française for French, the Goethe Institut for the German language, the British Council for British English or the Confucius Institute for Mandarin Chinese to name just a few.

The Instituto Cervantes Yearbook 2012 contains some highly interesting information on the growing importance of Spanish in the real world and on the Internet. It is estimated that Spanish will be one of the top 5 global languages spoken in 2050. Spanish is currently spoken by 500 million people worldwide. According to the yearbook it is the second most spoken language worldwide (after English) and the second most popular language on Twitter as well as the third most used language on the Internet in general.

Online Spanish has grown by some staggering 800% over the past few years. And there is still room for growth as 60% of the population in South America have not even joined the Internet! Learning Spanish as a second language has been a trend for some years now, and Spanish saw a plus of 8% in 2012 alone with a total of 18 million students.

It is estimated that in a few generations the U.S. will be the country with the biggest Spanish-speaking population worldwide. Besides the U.S. the Cervantes Institute will continue to promote Spanish in the Asia-Pacific region where the demand is especially high. In China, for instance, the current demand for Spanish teachers is higher than the access to qualified personnel which leads to the rejection of 70% of people interested in learning it. In terms of Chinese university students some 25,000 are currently studying Spanish compared with a mere 1,500 in the year 2000. Also in Hong Kong the Spanish culture is trending and almost every university offers Spanish-language courses there. Lastly, Japan will require all high schools to offer Spanish as a foreign language.

At OpenLanguage, our mission is to help busy adults learn a new language and make the process more convenient, accessible and fun. We are proud to have SpanishPod, one of the most popular online Spanish learning resources on our platform. With fast growing global demand for Spanish, we hope our partnership will bring Spanish into the lives of learners worldwide. Whether you want to brush up on your high school Spanish or want to start learning this beautiful language anew, feel free to try out SpanishPod on OpenLanguage! You will receive a complimentary course after signing up and be able to enjoy the free weekly question and culture show. Better yet, you will be able to learn the most practical and engaging SpanishPod lessons on your iOS or Android devices using the OpenLanguage app. Start today and keep us posted on your progress!

Original story via Language Magazine

The Philippines and Globalization

One of the effects of globalization is the migration of workforce and therefore often their native languages. Two of the latest languages that are now on the way to spread globally are Filipino and Tagalog, both spoken in the Philippines but spreading with its population that chooses to work and live abroad.

For example in Canada Tagalog is the fastest growing language. In the 2011 census 279,000 Canadians said they speak Tagalog at home which is a 64% growth compared to the 2006 census with the biggest Tagalog-speaking population living in Vancouver.

This trend also makes Tagalog the fifth most common non-official language in Canada and permanent residents from the Philippines surpassed those from China and India in 2010 and 2011.

Because of the good level of English in the Philippines (more on that in a minute) it is easier for these expats to find jobs and work in the U.S. or Canada. But this also leads to a risk that children born overseas might lose their linguistic and cultural connection to their home country.

For that reason Dr. Ruth Elynia S. Mabanglo, a multi-awarded poet and playwright, made it her personal mission to promote Filipino worldwide. When the government pushed for Spanish and English in schools in order to make the country fit to better serve global business, Dr. Mabanglo mobilized a protest petition.

She identified Filipino language courses and created learning material which is now available around the world in order to support parents who want to teach their children their native language and culture.

“You cannot learn a language without understanding its culture so I have developed many courses. I have a course on Philippine films… on Filipino food, music and rituals. Language and culture: they are like twins.”

On the other hand, the Philippines play a major role in the ESL (English as Second Language) space. As the country is a former colony of the United States and also powers most of the call centers for companies based overseas many Filipinos speak a clear English with a convincing American accent.

Combined with relatively low cost for students compared to courses in the U.K., New Zealand or Australia the Philippines managed to become one of the major players in the English teaching market over the past years. A 60-hour course costs about a third of what students usually need to spend.

Student numbers from across the world are growing rapidly, from 8,000 who applied for a study permit in 2008 to 24,000 in 2012. And the country is planning to ramp up its efforts to attract even more foreign students, not only for English but also graduate and postgraduate courses in other fields as at the country’s top universities all classes are held in English.

Today the country markets itself as the third largest English-speaking nation behind the United States and the UK with most people speaking at least a rudimentary English. On the other hand, with a growing population of Filipinos living and working abroad it might be worthwhile to learn some Filipino or Tagalog as well.

10 Things You Should Know Before Learning A New Language

Language learners are a brave bunch who take on one of the most daunting intellectual challenges in life. I have experience of both learning languages and helping people learn languages as well as meeting a lot of inspiring learners along the way. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to learn a language that I hope will be useful to you. Note that I am primarily writing for the busy adult learner. If you are student preparing for a proficiency exam for instance, this post might not be the most applicable.

1. It’s NOT going to be easy. 

Language learning is not like many other subjects or skills where there’s a more linear and structured system of teaching and learning. Language learning is a lot more fluid and challenging. Whether you are learning a new language out of necessity or as a hobby, realize that it’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to put in a lot of work on a daily basis, run into frustrating moments and be forced out of your comfort zone. You are not going to succeed if you think it’s going to be easy with minimal effort. But at the same time, you’ll find it to be a deeply enriching experience that expands your horizons and let you interact with a new world.

2. Define your own goals.

Your teacher should not define your goals. They offer you advice and guidance to help you get there. But no one knows what you are trying to achieve better than you. If you are learning the language to help you get through daily life in a new country, it’s totally OK just to learn the basics. I’ve seen many students struggle and suffer in learning because they outsoure learning to teachers and books. Most foreign language teaching content (perhaps with the exception of ESL) is written for school students who can dedicate 2 hours a day to learn a language. Are you that person? Are you learning a language to get credits? Do you have that much time? If not, don’t let other learners’ goals dictate your learning. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time learning things not relevant to you and ultimately cause you to give up.

3. Go through a boot camp period in the beginning.

To say that each language has its peculiarities is an understatement. You really need to go through a boot camp phase in the beginning to build a solid foundation to get the hang of things. The foundational knowledge in each language is different. For instance, pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese characters) and tones are an absolute must for any learners of Chinese. Without them, you are not going to learn the language. These things should be dealt with obsessively in the beginning. But they need to be approached in a way that encourages students rather than discourage them. I’ve seen many teachers who obsess over certain technical aspects of the language as a an end in itself rather than a means to an end. For example, many English teachers in China make students transcribe IPA after hearing a word instead of helping them using IPA to learn pronunciation and speak the language. Disembody the language is one of the most harmful things one can do to teach or learn a language.

4. Self-learning is an illusion.

There is plenty of products designed for the self-study learner. I’ve indeed seen many learners do well studying primarily on their own without going to a class or working with a teacher. But DO NOT confuse that with learning on your own and never interacting with a person. The truth is no language can be learned without a combination of input, study, practice, feedback and review. These are pillars in the language learning feedback loop. Not going to a class is fine  but you need to get practice and feedback from other sources. Don’t obsess with what, but make sure you understand why.

5. Embrace the repetitive nature of learning. 

Repetition is key in language learning. As dull as it sounds, there’s no way around it. Don’t expect to hear a new word or phrase and be able to internalize it, our brains do not work that way. In order to move new language from your short term memory into long term, you need to repeat hearing, saying and using it. But repetition doesn’t need to be dull and uninspiring, there are many ways to let yourself embrace and enjoy the repetitive nature of learning. One key element I found is that software programs make the worst repetition coach. Rather, find repetition with a human element. A real person can say the same thing 10 times but sound differently with emotion and intonation thrown in. In a similar way, you need to repeat what you hear and apply the same kind of real life subtleties that make learning alive.

6. Smaller chunks everyday work better than big chunks once a week.

The gym analogy effectively illustrates the point: it’s much more effective to do 20 minutes of workout per day than to do 90 minutes of workout once a week. There have been numerous studies on how shorter but more frequent chunks work better than longer and infrequent chunks in language learning. Smaller chunks are easier to implement and you are less likely to be bogged down by them. Many learners gradually dread the 2-hour language class and many stop going. We all know the slippery slope of missing one session, feeling guilty and unprepared and missing even more afterwards. But this isn’t saying that doing smaller daily chunks require no effort. You still need to find the time and space for it. So utilize ‘dead time’ throughout the day, e.g. the daily commute. If we can use it to read newspaper, listen to music or nap, so can we use it for language learning.

7. Create fun and reward in learning. 

We are all triggered by pleasure. If you are going to spend a lot of time doing something, it had better be fun. But when I say fun, this doesn’t mean fun in the sense of watching a comedy. It’s the kind of fun and joy that feel when you are fully engaged in an activity. Often you need to create that sense of fun for yourself by choosing resources and activities that are relevant to you and also find rewards to stimulate and motivate yourself. Once again, the reward isn’t the same kind of reward you get from eating a piece of chocolate cake. In language learning, rewards often come when you are able to complete a task using the language you’ve learned. This could be that the taxi driver took you to the right place based on the instruction you gave him or you were able to buy groceries from your local shopkeeper. The key is put yourself out there to find and create these opportunities that give you a sense of reward and accomplishment.

8. There’s no magic moment in language learning. 

I’ve seen many people think as long as they study for X number of hours, memorize X number of words and phrases, they will be able to speak the language. (Language books and schools are partly to blame for the misconception.) The truth is this will not happen. You need to constantly be hearing, learning and speaking the language and be able to get feedback and use it to improve. If you only get the input part and never practise or produce any language on your own, you are not going to learn how to use it. Once again, be obsessed about the feedback loop and constantly repeat it. Stop thinking that you are going to magically speak the language one day because you’ve put in the work to read books or memorize vocabulary. And stop trying to get everything perfect so that you feel secure and confident when using the language. You are going to sound imperfect in the beginning. That’s part of the deal. But you’ll get better. The magic of language learning happens in the everyday, the mundane, the miscommunication.

9. Mix and match products and services. 

There’s no single silver bullet solution in language learning. A single class, book, software program or app won’t solve all your problems. You need the elements in the feedback loop that I mentioned before: input, study, practice, feedback and review. Being in the language learning business for 8 years now, I’ve come to realize that different products and services excel at different things in that loop. My own startup, OpenLanguage for instance is focused on input and learning technology. But we don’t provide teachers. But we suggest that students work with a teacher or language partner when using our product and we are also looking at ways to work with schools and teachers. As a learner, this is something you need to realize and try to mix and match different products and services who do different things well. I’ve yet to see one company that does everything well and I am not sure that has to be the only way. I think collaboration will make our industry better.

10. You are not going to look at the world in the same way. 

If you are ready to take on the challenges posed in the previous 9 points, you’ll likely be rewarded in the most profound and fulfilling way for all your hard work. To borrow the words from the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, learning a new language will give you a ‘passport for your soul that allows you to travel freely across national borders’. You will see different sides of the world; connect with people and civilizations that you never dreamed of understanding; and you will also create so many wonderful and serendipitous personal and professional opportunities that enrich your life.


ELJ European Language Jobs Board – English Is Not Enough

That languages play an important part in the job seeking and recruitment process shows in the recent launch of the European Language Jobs (ESJ) website. ESJ is a job board that focuses on language recruitment in currently over 23 languages.

The navigation lets you browse either by selecting language and location or by category, the field you’re looking to work in. The geographic definition is set rather wide, i.e. you’ll find Turkey on the list. It makes sense though as Turkey along with some other ‘new’ countries is on the rise and offers job prospects what some of the core European countries may currently not be able to deliver as many are at a difficult point.

Job categories on ESJ include all major fields including finance, IT, marketing, science and others. Registration for both applicants and companies is free. Job seekers can upload their CV, apply for jobs anywhere in Europe and get in touch with recruitment agencies. Employers on the other hand can post multiple job positions in different locations across Europe, browse applicants’ profiles and create a company profile.

What I like it the focus on multi-language recruitment. Having browsed some of the categories and read the job descriptions it is quite apparent that candidates in Europe don’t qualify for many of the jobs advertised with only English as a foreign language. A good level of English has almost become a commodity. Today, candidates qualify over their second, third or fourth foreign language. Also notable is that the job descriptions require candidates to have a high, excellent or native level in at least two or three languages.

To sum this up, language skills can be used as a qualifying element, but only if these language are spoken at a level that allows you to perform at work. However, learning languages is too inconvenient for most adults and much of the non-English content isn’t designed to help adults learn the practical language that they need.

That’s what we at OpenLanguage is dedicated to do. We’ve gone through the same kind of struggles and we really do believe that with a bit of technology and modern teaching approach combined, language learning can be made a lot more efficient and effective. We’ve partnered up with 6 different publishers who share the same vision to offer you courses from English to Arabic! You will always be learning real life language designed for busy professional adults and be able to learn on your smartphone or tablet at your own pace. Check out the complimentary courses from our publishers in the OpenLanguage Store or download the OpenLanguage iOS and Android apps for free.

Our goal is to help you learn the most practical language in the most convenient and personalized way and have more fun in the process!

Interview With Benny Lewis: Busting The Language Learning Myth

I first met Benny in the summer of 2012 when he was learning Chinese and used our sister site ChinesePod as a resource. He is a real-life polyglot, speaking 8 languages fluently. He also writes the very popular Fluent in 3 Months blog where he shares his learning experiences and tips with fellow learners. He is a full-time career language learner, blogger and traveler, something many of us dream of doing. As unconventional as his lifestyle and learning path go, Benny has some rather widely applicable lessons for all language learners.

Q: How did you get started in language learning?

A: I am not a linguist by trade. In fact, until I was 21, English was the only language that I spoke. I had also done quite poorly with languages in school. So I am not naturally talented with languages. I actually have a degree in Electronic Engineering.

The transformation happened when I moved to Spain after graduation. I discovered that learning languages wasn’t so hard when you apply the right method! You also have to stop making excuses that you are too old, don’t have time, too shy to speak, etc. In fact, I lived in Spain for quite a while without learning any Spanish because I made a lot of excuses for myself. Myth 1: being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t naturally lead you to speak the language; And not being there doesn’t mean that you won’t learn the language. It all starts with whether you set your mind to it.

After finally successfully reaching a confident stage in Spanish, my travels led me elsewhere. Dozens of countries and many languages (8 of which I speak fluently) later, I am now a full-time language hacker!

Q: When you are learning a new language, what approach do you take? 

A: I start with defining the goal I am trying to reach. For me, it’s always to use the language to communicate with people and get me through travels in that country (I learn a language and I travel to the place where it’s spoken). I think defining your personal goal is absolutely critical because it will determine the kind of approach and resources you use. Different people have different goals. For example, some learners have the goal of reading poems or novels or writing essays in the target language, which is very different from mine. Myth 2: there is no single approach. The approach you take depends on your personal learning goals. You need to define the goals for yourself before starting to learn the language.

Q: A lot of adult learners have the same goal as you, i.e. to use the language to communicate in everyday life. What advice would you give them? 

A: If that’s your goal, then you have to realize that you need to get natural input in the language first, then study, speak and review it constantly. It’s a feedback loop. In my case, once I get the input, I start speaking immediately while studying the language in a more structured way and I always try to get feedback so that I can improve. Myth 3: there is no magical moment when you’ve done x hours of study and suddenly you can speak the language. You can start speaking a new language right away. The important thing is the feedback loop: get input, start speaking, study, review and improve. You have to do these things in a cycle and do them frequently. 

Q: You seem to be especially good at picking and mixing resources that suit your needs. Any tips for our learners?

A: Let’s get to myth 4: there’s no single product or solution that will get you there. You need to look for things that help you complete the cycle I just mentioned. Different products and services excel at different things. Some have very natural and engaging dialogues, some do speaking well. The key is to mix them. Say you might have a phrase book or app that you really like which gives you good input, but if you don’t break that down and focus on using the language with real people on a regular basis, you won’t succeed.

Q:I totally agree. Instead of focusing on the ‘what’, we need to focus on the ‘why’. It’s not about what the product it is, but why you are using it to achieve a certain purpose. Given that we’ve just started a new year and many learners have language learning as a New Year’s resolution, what suggestions would you give them?

A: The most important piece of advice is that set a specific goal. Myth 5: ‘learn a language’ isn’t a helpful goal because it’s far too general. You need to set specific goals or milestones and come up with concrete steps and activities to achieve them. So instead of saying ‘I want to learn x language in the new year, tweak your goal into something like ‘I want to be able to learn x number of phrases so that I can start a basic conversation with someone.’ And then come up with actual steps to achieve your goal. It’s also very important that you check on yourself or get someone to help you to make sure that you’ve followed it through.

Q: I must ask, the name of your blog is ‘Fluent in 3 Months’, can someone really achieve fluecy in 3 months? 

A: 3 months is a target I set for myself where I need to achieve a level of fluency which enables me to travel to the target language country and live there. But I am doing this on a full time basis. I immerse myself in learning the language. The moment I wake up, when I am on the bus, etc. I am always learning. For the average busy adult, they are not going to have that much time. So you need to integrate learning into your daily routine and make sure that you are using dead bits of time to study. It often means that you’ll do shorter chunks but frequently. It also means that you’ll probably need to give up 2 hours of TV every night and spend that time on learning instead. I’ve never seen someone who can learn a language without putting in the hard work. Myth 6: there’s no short cut to learning. If you don’t spend time on it, you are not going to learn.

Q: Very true. But there’s a lot that one can do to spend their time more efficiently and get the most out of their learning. 

A: Definitetly. Myth 7: you have to suffer in order to learn a language. You need to work hard, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And simply putting in the hours and going through motions doesn’t mean you are learning either. So it’s really important to find resources and activities that are relevant to you, contribute to your success and are what you enjoy. Only then will they work for you. 


Q&A with Kevin Chen, Co-Founder italki

Q: What is the italki Language Challenge?
A: The italki Language Challenge was an idea we had to help motivate language students to build some good study habits. Many people start the year with new year resolutions, and promises to make progress on learning a language. We think most people know that they will progress more quickly with a teacher — but it’s easy to find excuses to avoid scheduling lessons. We wanted to help give people a push.

Our Language Challenge is take 10 lessons in January, and get 3 months of access to a 3-month subscription to one language on OpenLanguage.

We did our first first language challenge in November 2012. Around 80 people signed up, and over 60 people completed the challenge of taking 8 lessons in 2 weeks. These students were taking around 4 language lessons a week! It really showed us that there are a lot of people who want to intensively study a language, and that we can help motivate them.

Q: What is italki?
A: italki is a language learning social network that connects people together for language learning. You can find online teachers, language partners, a friendly community that can answer your questions or correct your writing. italki is being developed by a small team that is based in Shanghai, China.

Q: Why did you create italki?
A: I always thought I was terrible with foreign languages. I remember my experience learning French for three years in high school, and not being able to speak a sentence of French. When I started studying Chinese in 2004, my progress was much faster because I had the benefit of studying Chinese in China. I was immersed. I was working on another internet startup, and I kept thinking that tools like Skype and Facebook should be able to help a language learner get some of the benefits of living abroad. You just needed a way to connect the people.

I think a lot of people have the experience of studying a foreign language, but never using it to communicate with someone from that country. I’m not sure you can become fluent in a language without doing a lot of this. I also think this is a crucial experience — it can be incredibly awkward, but the first time you have a conversation in another language can show you there is another part of the world that you have access to. Many users tell us they met their first foreigner in their lives through italki.

Q: Why did you choose OpenLanguage as partner for the challenge?
A: We’ve known the founders of OpenLanguage (Hank and Jenny) for many years, and we think their product is great. I am a fan of ChinesePod, and it helped me learn Chinese when I came to Shanghai.

One thing about OpenLanguage is that they support many languages. It’s a great fit for italki’s Language Challenge because our users come from so many different places and are studying different languages.

Q: What are the challenges for today’s busy language learner?
A: There are many issues, but I think motivation and access are two of the bigger ones. I think staying motivated is maybe the biggest one — especially for busy people, it’s too easy to stop studying. Learning a language is a long-term commitment, and it’s important to use every method to keep yourself engaged. This can be through lessons on your mobile with OpenLanguage, conversations with friends and language partners, or scheduled lessons with teachers on italki.

Q: How can italki and OpenLanguage help people to learn a new language?
A: italki is mainly a platform to help people around the world connect. OpenLanguage has great structured learning content. You can certainly use the two together, OpenLanguage content could be a basis for your language lessons on italki. We know there are many types of language students and ways of learning a language, and we think students will find the way that works best for them.