Monthly Archives: January 2013

Using Gary Vaynerchuk To Teach English: What ESL Learners Really Want

‘All About Wines’ is a recent EnglishPod lesson on OpenLanguage. The core dialogue takes place in a wine shop between a perplexed customer and a helpful salesperson. It’s just like a conversation you might have in a wine shop, confused about what types of wine you should bring to your boss’s party. What food are the hosts serving? Should I bring a classic full-bodied Bordeaux or a bottle of fruity and oaky Chardonnay? Better yet, the lesson doesn’t stop at teaching students how to name the main types of wine and describe their qualities. In the ‘Task’ section of the lesson, students are asked to watch a Gary Vaynerchuk video in which he tastes and reviews two Californian whites. In the video, learners learn things that savvy wine drinkers would say about a Sonoma Valley Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Their homework is to watch the video and produce a tasting summary that sums up the key language that Vaynerchuk used in the video. In crafting this lesson and many others, we merge language instruction with real world subject matter knowledge because language alone won’t help the learner succeed at the workplace. We want to help them be all-round global talents so that they can get that new job or promotion.

It’s with this in mind that we set out to create our ESL content first for China. The result is EnglishPod中国, an ESL product that aims to do exactly what I described. Within a year of its launch, it has become the no.1 language courses on iTunes China. I still meet a lot of skeptics who feel that the English learning market for China is saturated and that I am a fool to start a subscription product in this market. The purpose of the article isn’t to analyze the ESL market in China. I wanted to use this article to share some of my observations about real learners that I talk to and meet as well as my own experience learning English.

  • English isn’t only a tool to communicate. Many learners of English want the experience to add an extra dimension to their identity. They want the content to plug them into North American culture, life and sensibilities. In a business English context, one might lable it soft skills. Books such as Pearson’s Market Leader does a great job at it.
  • But looking beyond business soft skills, you’ll also find that students are hungry for content that tells them about real life experiences and stories of working in an international team, living an international life. You might be surprised that one of the most common questions from learners isn’t ‘HOW’ I talk to my foreign colleague or boss but ‘WHAT’ should I say to them? Often, water cooler talk is even harder than meeting room talk since you are not culturally aware and prepared as you are professionally. Yet this set of skills is so important because a lot of career advancement lies in the intangible, who you are, how you act in the everyday. At the end of the day, we all want to work with people on the same wavelength.
  • Learning a new language gives one a ‘spiritual passport’ to travel around the world and gives one a plethora of new intellectual and emotional experiences. That’s always one of the most elating things about learning a new language. That’s what great ESL content should do. It should expand the learners’ horizons and connect them to a new world. 

How do I curate content that meets these needs?

  • The content needs to be authentic and alive, not something that can only be produced by writers and language teachers working for established publishers. In many ways, the barrier of traditional publishing has been removed by web 2.0. It also means that when curating content, we can use a huge variety of resources to help us. For example, when the lesson is about choosing a bottle of wine, I can use one of the most popular wine personalities Gary Vayernerchuk to help students. If the lesson is about marketing strategy, I might use classic HBR case studies to supplement my core content.
  • Content creators have to have broad perspectives. Don’t think of yourself just as a teacher or writer, think of yourself as a curator. You need to be what your learners aspire to be. Of course, you also need to know what they aspire to. That’s why I found the best content team tends to be a mix of native English speakers and those who have successfully learned English as adults. The mix makes content relatable, authentic and often add the X factor.
  • Creating content that inherently has a cultural angle. One of the things that I hear most from EnglishPod中国 learners is that they love the cultural insights in the lessons. A lot of people ask ‘how do you do it?’ I am not sure if this is something that we labor at. Rather, I think the cultural insights are results of what the team is made of. The way they write and explain the content is infused with their own personal experiences learning the language and culture. They can look at things from both angles. What’s obvious for the native language speaker might be explored by the target language learner and developed into valuable teaching moments and vice versa. That’s life experience that you can’t script. 

These are just some of my observations curating content for students learning English in China. I truly believe that we live in such an exciting time to create and publish content that speaks to the learners, connects with them and help them be truly global citizens.

Addressing The Language Gap At Schools: Bundling Language Learning With Science

The United Kingdom is known for a population that is increasingly reluctant to learning a second or even third language. In Wales alone the number of students who chose French or German at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) has fallen by 28% and 38% in the past five years.

Interestingly those are the top two languages employers and managers in the UK would like to have their future employees speak fluently according to the 2012 Education and Skills survey by Pearson and the CBI, a business lobbying organisation in the UK.

In order to reverse that trend the National Centre for Languages in Wales came up with the idea to show students the effect of learning a second language in combination with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) when looking for a job in the UK and the European Union. It wants pupils to consider career prospects from combining science subjects with a language. Science is compulsory in Wales at GCSE but modern foreign languages are not. The idea is to show pupils who are considering their GCSE options that studying Stem subjects alongside languages can improve job opportunities in the UK and Europe.

The Education and Skills Survey showed, language skills are considered as an important part of the CV in a globalized world. Many companies have offices across the world, especially in BRIC countries. Being able to communicate with customers and colleagues in their native language is not only a social skill, it also helps to build better relationships and an understanding of the culture in the country.

In a world where speaking English is almost a commodity a second or even third language is basically a must for someone who wants to compete in the globalized job market. And with the Internet as the driver of trade and innovation, the globalization starts at your doorstep.


The Future of MOOCs is Vertical

Over the course of 2012, massively open online classrooms, or MOOCs, have started to radically disrupt the foundations of traditional education structures. These MOOCs (such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, etc) use videos – independent of time and location – to replace lectures, blowing away the walls of the traditional classroom and potentially bringing the genius of the best teachers to any network-connected student in the world. Beyond just providing lectures or lesson input, these MOOCs are rapidly rounding out their offerings by adding exercises to test comprehension and collecting study data with the long-term vision of designing personalized, learning pathways. In contrast to this innovation, traditional institutions are clinging to their last remaining solid foothold, that of providing credentials.

While the technologists have started the MOOC revolution, teachers and subject matter experts need to consolidate these gains by contributing their real world pedagogical experience. While the teaching of some subjects are in the format of lecture, lecture then test, others are more complicated and require students to do more than just watch videos and take exercises. This gap is exactly where there is an opportunity for vertical MOOCs.

Specialized Review

Some subjects require specialized review activities to reinforce and explore the key concepts presented in the lectures, or lesson input. For instance when learning a new language, after a student is introduced to a new lesson (ideally focused around a real-life dialogue in the target language) they need to examine and start to play with the language. What did that person say? How is that sentence constructed? Can that term be used in other ways? What are other similar wards that can be used with the same sentence? How can I save these terms for future review?

While a video lecture can kick off the learning experience, for some subjects specialized review tools are necessary to facilitate increased student learning and engagement.

Specialized Practice

Some subjects require more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept, they require the student to mimic, apply or recreate the desired skill. While a medical student maybe be able to acquire a perfect intellectual understanding of anatomy, how many patients would consent to the same person performing an operation without hours and hours of practice and coaching?

Specialized Learning Pathways

The big promise of moving learning onto digital platforms is that the underlying study data can be collected and used to help optimize learning environments and pathways. With enough data, the visions contend, it should be possible to customize learning environments (much like you would A/B test a website) to increase the students chances for success. For a similar cohort of students, does the length of a lecture matter? The time of day? The ethnicity of their teacher? There are hundreds of variables that could potentially be optimized.

Once these optimization efforts hit learning materials things become more complicated. Some subjects, like math, rely on pre-requisites when constructing a study plan. With this linear progression, the visions contend, it should be possible to build a ‘funnel’ and then ‘optimize’ the pathways for various student cohorts. But what happens with a subject that doesn’t rely so much on pre-requisites (e.g. history – does it matter if a student learns about the American Revolution before the Second World War?) or where the pre-requisites are more blurry (e.g. language learning – where pre-requisites rely more on bands of difficulty rather than linear progression).

This is the big data problem that MOOCs are looking to solve. It will likely need highly customized algorithms for different subjects.

Specialized Pedagogy

One of the most exciting consequences of using videos to provide lectures to students before class is that class time can be re-purposed to focus more on coaching and helping students overcome their individual problems. This ‘flipped classroom’ approach makes use of the best that both technology and the classroom can offer, hopefully creating a more personalized and effective learning experience for the student.

For many subjects, teachers and face-to-face time are still an important piece of the learning process. MOOCs should be providing integrated support for teachers with lesson plans and student activity streams to help them understand where students are succeeding and failing. Math and languages are not taught the same in a traditional classroom context, nor should they be with a flipped classroom model.

Teachers will have specific needs depending on their subject area and vertical MOOCs will be in the best position to serve them.

Specialized Assessment

Different subjects measure proficiency in different ways. While it may sufficient for some subjects simply to test students with a multiple choice exam, others require additional evaluation lenses to determine learning success. With language acquisition for instance, multiple choice exams can be used for reading and listening comprehension, but written assignments are needed to measure writing ability and oral exams to measure speaking ability.

The difference in how subjects are assessed is just one further example of why there is an opportunity for learning platforms specialized on vertical subjects.

Just the Beginning

After more than 15 years of the Internet, MOOCs are finally starting to disrupt Industrial-era education. While significant innovations have already been made, the next stage will be able about specific subject-matter verticals filling out the offering to finally define the share of new, Internet-era education structures.

Improve Your Handicap By Learning English

Picture courtesy Wojciech Migda, via Wikimedia Commons 

I recently came across an interesting article in the sports section of the Seattle Times. Sports and language learning, you might might ask. Where’s the connection? Well, here is how the two are related.

Na Yeon Choi is a pro-golfer from South Korea, one of the rising stars of the women’s pro tour. Last year, she felt that it was crucially important in her job to speak proper English. Though the golfers get prepared for some standard question-answer time with journalists after a tournament, we all know that journalists like to break ranks. In order to be able to react to questions spontaneously, she decided to start learning English with a personal tutor from Canada. Her learning was intensive as she spent one hour a day learning English with her tutor, first in person and later on via Skype. The two decided to focus on conversational English as this would fit Choi’s needs best.

Interestingly, when Choi analyzes what these English lessons have brought her, the benefits are far bigger than only being able to react to journalists’ questions. She actually feels speaking English made her a better golfer, too. Being able to express her feelings toward other people and to communicate with other players makes her relax more on the lawn.

As Choi’s story shows, even the busiest people can make time in their schedules for learning when they have the drive, motivation and dedication to make it happen.

Synchronous learning with a language teacher or tutor through live lessons is one effective way to acquire new skills. However, not all of us want to speak and learn with a tutor. It might put some learners on the spot, and others cannot afford to have a one-hour lesson a day.

For all of these types of learners, there are various other possibilities to integrate elements of learning in our busy lives.

At OpenLanguage we believe that your learning solution should match your lifestyle and be integrated into your daily routine. This is why the Tablet Textbook is at the heart of OpenLanguage. Busy adults should be empowered to use bits of down time to study throughout the day, e.g. on the train during their morning commute, waiting for their lunch order or even on the plane. But it’s also important that learning is broken down into chunks that reinforce each other rather than fragment the process. At OpenLanguage, we always start a lesson with a realistic dialogue to expose students to real-life language and situations. It’s accompanied by an audio featuring 2 teacher presenters walking students through the new language. The dialogue is further broken down into different sections that focus on vocabulary, expansion sentences, grammar, culture, etc. Each section is designed to be consumed in 15-20 minute chunks and they all circle back to reinforce and expand on the core dialogue. We hope the form factor of smartphones and tablets plus the academic design of a lesson will help students easily spend short chunks of time thourghout the day to listen, prepare, practice and perform the language. Dedicating only small amount of time everyday, but do it frequently will help you make significant progress in learning your target language.

Kirsten Winkler Joins OpenLanguage As Content Lead

What a great way to start the new year with a new exciting challenge. Jenny Zhu asked me to write a short introduction and explain what we are up to with the OpenLanguage company blog and social media activities in 2013.

Let’s start with the backstory. As you might know, I have been covering the education 2.0 space and the online language learning space in particular since early 2009 across a variety of different outlets including my own blogs and EDUKWEST as well as my collumns on Big Think and edcetera.

Over two years ago I had the pleasure to interview Hank Horkoff for my series on EDUKWEST and I was very impressed by the product and brand he and his team had built over the years. And even today this interview is the second most popular post on EDUKWEST of all time which tells a lot, I’d say.

So when Hank asked me back in March 2011 if I were interested to join a new startup he and Jenny were building as advisor I had not to think twice. Taking the massive success of ChinesePod and converting it into a modern platform that enables anyone to create mobile language learning experiences is a very exciting premise.

Now that the product has shown early signs of success, both from the customer as well as the content publisher side, we want to kick into the next gear with “The Hum of Language Acquisition”.

Over the past weeks Jenny and I have worked on a content framework we believe our audience is going to enjoy. The overarching idea is to share related content for people who want to stay on top of the changing global workplace. Therefore, you will of course find stories and news around language learning, scientific research in this field but also stories and interviews around globalization and how a shrinking world affects the way we communicate and do business with each other.

There will be original content written or recorded by Jenny and me as well as short comments on current events together with a tied in social media effort where we are going to share the latest findings via Twitter and our Facebook page – so make sure to subscribe and like us there as well.

Think of “The Hum of Language Acquisition” as your personal news curator that finds the most interesting and relevant stories for you to support your language learning journey. We hope that our blog will become one of your favorite sources over the year and are of course happy about any suggestion you might have. Just write to Jenny at or me at