Author Archives: Jenny Zhu

How Important is English in Your Career Development?

A recent article in The Economist titled ‘The English Empire’ noted that an ever increasing number of international companies are adopting English as their first language. While this comes as no surprise for most English learners, what’s worth noting is that global firms from non-English speaking countries are adopting English to replace their native language as the official language.

Taking China’s Lenovo for example, its CEO Yang Yuanqing set a very personal example when he made it his priority to become fluent in English at the age of 40. Despite a grueling work schedule, he made sure to set aside time studying English everyday from learning with a personal tutor to watching American TV. He now conducts board meetings in fluent English. Another Asian boss who exemplifies commitment to learning English is Hiroshi Mikitani, the boss of Japan’s Rakuten Group which operates the ubiquitous Uniqlo chain. He made his staff learn English and once warned to demote or even fire staff who didn’t reach desired fluency. Companies from Asia to Europe recognize that it’s far more efficient to conduct business in English.

This trend means that English is becoming ever more important in one’s career development. On top of communications benefits, some business leaders including the aforementioned Hiroshi Mikitani also think that the English language helps promote attributes such as free thinking and creativity amongst employees.

Does your personal experience reflect the bigger trend? We hope you can share your experience by answering the following questions:

  • How much of a role does English play in your professional development?
  • What’s your view on the role English plays at work?
  • Do you think it’s sometimes mistaken for professional competency?
  • Did you have to learn English on the job?
  • Does your employer provide English training?
  • What key factors do you consider when looking for English training?

As the creator of English learning materials for busy adults, we want to hear your thoughts!

Koestel Family

Raising Multilingual Children: Interview with Franck Koestel from

Today we focus on language learning for the little ones. Children have an amazing ability to learn new languages. As parents, how do we inspire and help them acquire new languages? Listen in as OpenLanguage co-founder Jenny Zhu talks to Franck Koestel from, one of the most popular blogs on the topic about inspiring children to learn languages through daily activities and create rewarding family bonding experiences. Both Jenny and Franck have a professional as well as deeply personal interest in the area and they share their own trials and triumphs in raising multilingual children. Whether you are in similar situations as them or simply would like to ignite your children’s interest in languages, we hope today’s conversation will help you along the way.

OpenLanguage Learner Series: Inspiring Children to Learn Languages



Where are the Language Nerds? (A Hymn for Language Learners)

I was recently reading a blog post by my friend and fellow OpenLanguage content contributor Kirsten Winkler. Grimly titled ‘The Grim Future of Language Learning’, Kirsten presents reasons why language learning as an industry has a rather pessimistic outlook. One statement particularly struck me ‘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.’ Kirsten sums up the attitude towards language learning as ‘general averseness’. Being a language learner, teacher and an entrepreneur, the article does echo some of my own experience. But I have a rather positive take on the language learning scene, from both a business and personal point of view.

A Niche Pastime

As uncommon as it is, I’ve seen many adults who choose to pick up language learning as a hobby. This couldn’t be more vividly demonstrated by my experience at ChinesePod. Launched in 2005, it originally primarily targeted expats living in China, i.e. those who needed to speak some Chinese to get through daily life in China. But we soon realized that the majority of our customers actually lived outside China. Many of them had not even been to China. They were learning Chinese primarily for personal growth and fulfillment. This always comes as a big surprise to people who found out who our customers were. Over the years, I’ve met both virtually and in person countless learners who came from diverse walks of life: bankers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, suburban moms, retirees, etc. They have very different personal reasons as to why they are learning Chinese. But none is doing it because they have to. The common thread is always personal interest and fulfillment. Many of them stick with it for years and become lifelong learners. In turn, the solutions they seek tend to be quite varied, more inspirational and ‘human interest’ than enrolling in a semester of Chinese studies or buying a few books. They use services such as ChinesePod where there’s fresh content, human connections and community support to keep them motivated and engaged. Learning isn’t a means to an end for them. It’s both. That’s one of the reasons that helped ChinesePod become a successful subscription business.

Celebrating Language Nerds

We’ve affectionately nicknamed this group of learners ‘language nerds‘. They derive a deep sense of pleasure from language learning and are often interested in learning more than 1 language. In my current startup OpenLanguage, we even designed a product for language nerds that gives them unlimited access to 7 different languages including English, Spanish, Russian and even Arabic. As niche as the market is, I deeply believe that there is a group of passionate people seeking to learn more languages to understand more about the world and enrich their own. Language is as much a practical tool as it is about social interaction and enriched experiences. That’s why concepts such as ‘edutainment’ and parasocial relationships are extremely important for language businesses that are trying to capture this market segment. Many language tech companies are using tech innovation to create shortcuts in learning. While I’m all for making the process more efficient and effective, the human aspect of learning and delivering pleasure and fulfillment in the process should not be overshadowed.

Language learning and language learners should all be celebrated.


The Serendipitous Joy of Learning a Language

Language products often look very similar. Despite the expansion of new technology that has transformed books to computers to smartphones and tablets, the learner actually finds a very similar set of content for most languages. It’s understandable since the function of languages has not changed nearly as much as the technology. However more importantly, the approach of producing language learning content is still stuck in the industrial economy despite the change in technology.

Looking through a wide range of books, softwares, websites and apps, you’ll find a similar list of topics for languages as varied as Arabic and Chinese. Learners start from basic greetings and introductions and move up to shopping, wining, dining, etc.

I’ve always wondered how much the learner misses out when the majority of learning materials look so similar. What if you want to learn to express things that are NOT on the list? For example, proposing to your Chinese girlfriend? Talking to an emergency phone operator in Spanish? Or debating about the status of the European Union in French? As niche as these needs might be, they reflect how language acquisition and usage take place in real life. It’s often far more serendipitous than textbooks and softwares prepare us for.

Sadly it’s far more efficient to produce a largely similar set of phrases in any given language than to try to capture the richness of situations and the language used. Industrial era publishing economics still dominate digital era language learning content production. The same content simply moves from paper to touch screens. The technology innovation is way ahead of content innovation. Most content providers have yet to catch up with a new reality of leveraging technology to provide a living and breathing landscape of language learning. Adaptive learning algorithms won’t help us fundamentally expand the border of language learning if the core content is still a stale set of 500 phrases.

As a language educator and entrepreneur, my challenge is to recognize the serendipitous nature of language learning and trying to enrich learners exposure to the width and depth of the language they’re learning. It might very well mean different things to different learners. A tourist’s language needs are very different from a professional expat’s whose needs are yet different from someone who is learning the language as a hobby. But the common thread is always high frequency language in high frequency situations for that different target learner. That’s why language courses should always evolve and expand to reflect the richness of real life experiences. The best kind of journey is often the one that takes you to a different place and leads you to new discoveries. True of life and true of language learning.

How Much Would You Pay to Learn a Language?

The cost of language learning varies greatly. There is a plethora of free resources on one hand, but an equally diverse range of paid options on the other. Learners in theory have the freedom to splurge or spend nothing. But often how much the learner is willing to pay is determined by what learning a new language means to them. Taking learning English for instance, most learners are economically motivated. English skills often mean access to better opportunities and salary prospects. Hence learners are willing to invest more to brush up their English skills. An average 1 year course in leading English institutions costs at least $3000 to $4000 in China. And there’s no shortage of people paying. But if you’re not learning a language out of economic motivation but taking it up as a hobby, you’ll probably allocate less budget for learning. However, you might spend much more time researching resources and engaging in self-directed learning which are a cost on their own.

Price vs Results

I’m not convinced that you need to pay big bucks to learn a language well. I believe that much more important than price is focus and methods. Many learners outsource their learning to a school or teacher because they’ve paid the money and expect the institution to deliver results. While many learners who pay a lot less succeed because they’re actively involved in their learning.

Debundling of Learning

Being focused and getting the mix right (learning methods) far outweigh price. The mix being ‘input, study, output, feedback’. Learners who know that they need these ingredients in language learning and really apply them tend to be the ones who do better. More often than not the four ingredients don’t come from a single source. Learners need to find resources in each category that best suit their needs. The bliss and problem for learners are that there are massive amounts of free and paid options. How do you go about choosing and which element should you spend more money on? In the traditional classroom model, all of these elements are thrown together though teachers and students use a lot of external resources. For the student, it can be a simple and hassel free experience, though often not the best. But we’ve been seeing the debundling of language learning where students are getting each element from different places rather than relying on one class or teacher. This is true for both learners with no easy access to teachers or classes and increasingly for those who do.

How much would you pay to learn a language?

I want to throw it out there to fellow language learners: speaking from your personal experience, how much are you willing to pay to learn a language (what language did you learn)? Do you think it was money well spent? How would you allocate your budget differently if you were to do it again? Looking forward to hearing from you!

Yoyo and Tang: 2 Unlikely Things that Changed how Chinese Saw the Western World

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Yesterday, my 2-year-old son asked me to buy him a yoyo. His request brought me right back to my childhood in the mid 1980’s in China. I was about 5 or 6 then and personally living through the height of the first wave of Reform and Opening Up. Even for a young kid in Shanghai, the social transformation was apparent. I still vividly remember that on the one hand, we were using food rationing tickets to buy rice, eggs and other produce; but on the other, there was a tantalizing drink called Tang whose commercial was playing on TV channel day in and day out. (There must had been only 2 or 3 channels back then and the Tang commercial was the only commercial available  to air). Most importantly for a Chinese, Tang wasn’t rationed. It was available in fancy food shops to those who could afford it. I still remember the premise of the commercial. A happy family of 3 was introduced to Tang by a man in space suit. The commercial proudly claimed that American astronauts drank Tang. There was a split second in the TVC where the family held their glasses of Tang together and the shot moved to slow motion of a perfectly round drop of Tang bouncing in the air. My friends at school discussed this shot again and again. We wondered if Tang could produce perfectly round bits of drops that other drinks couldn’t. It remained a mystery for a while since none of us had actually tasted Tang. I couldn’t really remember when I eventually drank Tang. But the curiosity, desire and envy produced by the commercial was almost universal for people in my generation. We felt as if Tang and its commercial were a window to the Western world. We thought every family in America drank Tang and that’s why they were so happy. And for the first time in a long time, we could have a bit of that too. (Tang is still available in China, but it’s seen as a washed up 80’s and 90’s drink. Not till just now when I did research for this post did I realize that it was a 60’s drink in the US.)

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Now back to yoyo. Its amazing success was later than Tang’s. It was the early or mind 90’s. A Taiwanese guy was appearing on TV everyday, performing fancy yoyo tricks and introducing the toy that took America by storm to China. Yoyo was a novelty toy that Chinese had not seen before. And the guy called himself ‘the king of yoyo’ and became a household name. The Chinese embraced yoyo as we do iPhones and iPads today. We thought playing with a yoyo was so new, so fun and so cool. Everyone wanted to own a yoyo themselves, kids and adults alike. So very smartly. the king of yoyo started to sell his own branded yoyo’s. I was amongst the many millions of kids who begged their parents for a yoyo and was lucky enough to get a hold of one. (Yoyo wasn’t a cheap toy for most urban Chinese). I remember that during each recess, those of us who had a yoyo were the most popular and cool kids. Everyone else wanted to be your friend so that they could play with your yoyo for a minute or two. And then just like Tang, yoyo faded away. But those of us who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s fondly remember these 2 things as a window to the Western world during our childhood. They stood for novelty, optimism and now when I come to think of it, entrepreneurial spirit to a young Chinese mind.


The Importance of Personal & Parasocial Relationships in Language Learning

7 years after teaching languages through lesson podcasts, a once in decline medium seems to be on the rise again thanks to smartphones and tablets. I’ve always been medium agnostic whether it was during the iPod/podcast hype, the awkward years following or the current revival. It’s much more about the intimate personal connection one builds with the message rather than the medium.

Making a Human Connection

In an age where digital learning has become part of the essential learning mix, I strongly believe that the role of the message and the messenger should be celebrated even more, because language learning is social. Personal and parasocial relationships are even more important in digital learning when it’s often done in a self-study fashion without the human dynamics to engage, motivate and encourage the learner. Students want to feel the same kind of human touch as they would in a classroom but with the convenience of it delivered to their location and in their own pace.

Injecting Personality in Learning 

I still remember the first time when a ChinesePod user showed up in his suit and tie and carry on luggage when he came by our office. He was from the States, learning Chinese using our product for a while. He spotted me from the office and called out ‘Jenny’ before went on saying that we ‘go back a long way’. But it was the first time we’d ever met. However, my Chinese lessons had been playing in his car everyday for the past 6 months. ‘Your voice and those long drives’, he said. I, a teacher in Shanghai was made massively available to students everywhere in the world by podcast. I still have many lovely moments like this when learners visit us to put a face to the voice and personality that they’ve developed a bond with. Learning on their own, on a computer, smartphone or tablet was made less mechanical and more alive by the personality that delivered the message.

Creating High-Touch Offline Activities 

This is something that I wish I had done earlier. People need to meet, mingle and speak the language. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a traditional class. Grassroots local meetups could be an option. The meetups have a distinct language learning purpose where learners gather together with the help of a native speaker facilitator to practice the language and meet fellow learners. Technology makes these small dispersed events more purposeful. The meetup could happen around a centralized lecture delivered in the form of a video or audio lesson. The students get together not to listen to a lecture (which they do before hand), but to practice the language taught in that specific lecture. OpenLanguage recently did out first meetup of such kind in Shanghai with a group of English learners using our product. Everyone came prepared. They got to speak a ton of English with native speaker facilitators and each other. It also gave us the opportunity to hear customer feedback firsthand, face to face and helped them with issues on the spot. This is so important for digital products as you don’t usually meet students, see and hear problems firsthand.

Many would agree that a blended model is the way to go for language learning and learning in general. The challenge now is how do we blend so that we preserve and elevate the human aspect of learning, but making it more efficient and productive for both the learner and teacher.