Amongst many cool things that Google Glass does is its ability to provide real time, text-based translations of what the people next to you are saying. This could be a game changer for language learning, making the process faster, more responsive or even redundantly for the survival phrase learners. For many language learners, the real time decoding of languages indeed has massive appeal. I am sure that as Google Glass gets perfected, it will start to make deeper impact on language learning. But as many entrepreneurs and innovators jump to find how they can use Google Glass for the next big product idea, I feel it might be healthy to maintain a level of procrastination and pragmatism unless you are Google. If you are a language startup, chances are Google Glass would impact what you do in 10 years.
I’ve come to this realization through hard-learned lessons. When mobile app first emerged in mid 2000’s, we got our team to build one of the earliest apps around, an Android app for learning English. We demoed it using the first generation Google Nexus phone at the Google office in Beijing to a crowd of Googlers without the phone themselves! We also started to pitch our ‘mobile learning’ solution to corporate clients in China. We thought the model made perfect sense. Have your employees learn English on their smartphones on their way to work, practice with a teacher once a week and review on their phone after the class. This way, you cut down work time spent on learning and help your staff learn in more personalized ways. We did some more demos and pitches to bewildered audiences. Back in 2006, you could count the number of smartphones in China with one hand and 3G network was a great 5-year-plan for China Mobile. We built a product when there was no devices and infrastructure to support it. Needless to say it went very well. Many startups do not survive the pursuit of cutting edge technology or get scarred by their first attempt and give up before the timing is right. We were very lucky to have survived and made a comeback with OpenLanguage.
I am often stunned by how little technology has touched language learning. We have medieval classroom models, industrial age textbooks and enduring inertia in academia. As frustrating as it could be for entrepreneurs who are convinced that things could be done a lot better using new technology, the winners (i.e. those who make the biggest impact) are not those who can ‘disrupt’ language learning per say, but those who can make new technology and pedagogy work with the old system. I’ve learned that a new product will always have its niche early adopters, but it’s extremely hard to cross over to the mainstream if you force your new vision on your stakeholders. In language learning, you have to be able to work with teachers, schools not just students. And if you really want to improve the way people learn languages, you really need to work with teachers since they are an indispensable part of the process and also dictate how students learn. The fact is neither the average teacher nor student will think about how Google Glass can change how they teach and learn. (If they need to think how to use it, they are not going to use it). As an entrepreneur, I find it healthy to restrain myself from pushing boundaries and focus on real and unsexy problems that teachers and students are dealing with, such as how do I assign and mark homework and how do I find my next lesson.
Meanwhile, thank God for the intrepid souls who keep pushing. If it weren’t for them, the iPhone and iPad would have been unthinkable. And then it’s our obligation to build for devices and technologies that people are using.