Category Archives: Best Practices

The 5 Best Languages to Learn for the 21st Century

There are a lot of languages out there and choosing the right one to learn is a big question. If you’re reading this right now, then you already know English which is undeniably the most important language to learn in the 21st century. What about after that? Of course, pursuing your personal interests is always one of the best options. But what if you want to study a language that will prove to be notably important and useful in our increasingly globalized world? What are the most useful languages to learn in the 21st century?



Portuguese is the 6th most spoken language in the world with 220 million native speakers. Most notably known as the language of Brazil, Portuguese is also spoken by notable populations in Portugal, Angola, and Mozambique. Brazil is one of the world’s greatest recent economic success stories, with an enormous and growing middle class. The country’s image, and in turn business prospects, is sure to only improve with the coming 2014 Brazil World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Angola as has also been booming recently, with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Given the current positioning of Portuguese vis-a-vis Brazil in particular, there is no question that the language will become ever-more-important this century.

Keep an eye out for OpenLanguage Portugese coming soon!



Russian is the 8th most spoken language in the world with 155 million native speakers and is an official language of the United Nations.. These speakers are stretched out over a huge swath of land from a number of former USSR republics in Eastern Europe through to Russia which extends all the way to East Asia. In recent years, Russia and other Russian-Speaking former-USSR republics have played host to surging economies, in part due to large populations now participating in the global economy and the significant reserves of natural resources, all of which will give those with a knowledge of Russian great advantages in the business realm this century. Recent international disputes involving Russia and the Ukraine also highlight the continued strategic importance of this language in the post-Cold War era.

Try out a complimentary Russian course on OpenLanguage today.



Arabic is the 5th most spoken language in the world with 295 million native speakers. Arabic is spoken across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula and is an official language of the United Nations. The Arabic-speaking world is home to extremely disparate countries and populations, some economically vibrant and playing an increasingly important role in globe such as Qatar and Dubai and others, like Syria, embroiled in intractable warfare and the focus of international security and welfare efforts. With nations and populations in all positions between those two ends of the spectrum, it’s undeniable that a knowledge of Arabic will help you engage with what is one of the most dynamic regions of the world.

Try out a complimentary Arabic course on OpenLanguage today.



Spanish is the 2nd most spoken language in the world with 405 million native speakers and is an official language of the United Nations. Spanish is the official language of Spain and the majority of countries in Latin America from Central America down to the bottom tip of South America, in addition to being widely spoken in the United States and Canada. Despite the global economic downturn in 2008, Latin American economies have continued to post strong and stable growth rates in recent years. In countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Chile, strong middle classes are emerging that are tech-savvy, educated, and ready to engage the world. The huge potential of the populations of Spanish-speaking Latin America is only now starting to show itself, and a knowledge of Spanish will ensure that you’ll be able to explore this world as it blossoms.

Try out a complimentary Spanish course on OpenLanguage today.



Chinese (Mandarin) is the most spoken language in the world with 955 million native speakers and is one of the official languages of the United Nations. Spoken predominantly in mainland China, Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan, Singapore, and throughout the Chinese diapsora. Everyone everywhere as of late has been talking about China’s economic rise of the last few decades, with the country looking to become the largest economy in the world very soon. With hundreds of millions of Chinese now looking to do business and travel in the rest of the world, a knowledge of Chinese will open up enormous opportunities in the 21st century.

Try out a complimentary Chinese course on OpenLanguage today.


Does where you come from affect how you learn languages? (If not, what does?)

I was recently talking to a friend who ran an English school in China. After seeing our approach at OpenLanguage, he said, ‘you know Chinese like to memorize vocabulary when they learn English. You don’t need to spend all this money and effort developing elaborate courses with dialogues and supporting materials. Students just want a list of words grouped by functions. They think it’s an easier and faster way to learn English.’ What he said made me feel sad for his students. Being a Chinese and a learner of English myself, I couldn’t disagree more with him. Chinese might have been taught to memorize words and grammar rules in schools, but the failure of most Chinese to to hold a basic conversation in English after 10+ years of education speaks volume to the absurdity of the approach. But our discussion also got me thinking: does where one comes from affect how they learn languages, i.e. do Chinese or Russians or other nationalities really respond to a certain type of teaching and learning better than another? I’m not convinced that it’s the case. And if not, what factors are at play in determining how we learn?

Why I am skeptical of the ‘nationality’ approach: while people from a certain region might have been conditioned by a certain way of teaching, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best way. The test-oriented Chinese education system that suppresses creativity, practical application and common sense is a great example of failure. So why perpetuate a broken paradigm? Taking the vocab memorize approach for instance, I have yet to see anyone from China or elsewhere being able to effectively communicate in a language by primarily focusing on word memorization or learning grammar rules for the same matter. This kind of approaches usually are shortcuts to game a test, whether it’s a school test or an English proficiency exam. People whose language skills are not at a proficient level have to cram words into their brains because they need to take tests within a short period of time. Many test prep schools and books make it clear to students that their purpose is to improve test scores, not improving students’ communicative ability.

That’s why instead of saying Chinese prefer learning English through word memorization, the assumption should rather be students who are cramming for exams are forced to memorize words to pass tests. If the learner is not studying to pass exams, how should they learn? I suspect that we could try to determine the approach based on two essential factors: 1) what the students are trying to do with the language, i.e. their learning goals; 2) their lifestyle. Most students at OpenLanguage for instance are busy professional adults learning languages for practical reasons, whether it’s for chances of a promotion, to prepare for an overseas assignment or an upcoming holiday, to talk to their co-workers and friends or even as a hobby. This type of learners overwhelmingly see language as a tool to communicate, connect and broaden their perspective. They want to learn to speak, to make human connections and to explore a new culture. The teaching approach needs to help them achieve these goals. That’s why we’ve taken the communicative and comprehensible approaches to language acquisition. We want to expose learners to natural dialogues set in realistic situations filled with real emotions. Our learners want to learn from something alive and real, because that’s what they will be using the language for. Whether it’s a Chinese learning English or an American learning Spanish, I see students respond to approaches that showcase languages in their living and breathing form. That’s the type of language learning we should be celebrating.

Speak Like You in a Second Language, not a Robot

Yahoo recently paid $30 million for the news reading app Summly and its 17-year-old founder Nick D’Aloisio’s time. If you havn’t used this app, watch this intro video as Nick and British actor and Summly investor Stephen Fry walk you through what Summly is all about.

‘Summly thinks like you, not a robot’. That’s the line that stuck with me after watching the video. It’s true for Summly’s intelligent algorithm summarizing news stories and magazine articles for its user. It’s also true for anyone who is learning a second language. Having been a language learner myself and now a language startup entrepreneur, I’ve used too many books, CD ROM’s and software programs that teach learners language that people don’t actually use in real life. They compel you to learn sentence structures that comply with a syllabus, an exam; or expose you to voice actors who are made to speak so slowly and robotically to dumb it down for learners at the expense of how one really speaks in real life. Often the human construct of how one acquires a language does more harm than good to a learner.

Why shouldn’t we learn a new language as how it’s used in the real world?  Grant it that a learner needs a more ‘controlled’ environment that gradually introduces them to the varying difficulty of a language. But the best kind of learning happens when it’s relevant to the real world. I recently talked to a beginner learner of Chinese who was proud that he was able to figure out how to get his dry cleaning done with his very limited Chinese. He was able to do it and learn new words and phrases because he went down to a dry cleaner and had a real exchange. The context helped him piece together new words and phrases from his existing knowledge. And he’ll internalize it because going to the dry cleaner will be a routine and he will lot of chance to practice what he’s learned.

Now, the challenge is how do we help learner create this kind of authentic language environment away from the target language country and how do we make it into a standardized learning process that they can repeat and internalize? Real human interaction and exchange are key. That’s why at OpenLanguage, we’d like to think of our job as capturing those authentic moments in life, making into meaningful learning pieces that help learners acquire a new language in both a natural and effective way. Rigidly following a grammar book or syllabus is as unhelpful for an adult learner as throwing them in the wild target language environment and hope they’d magically acquire the language. We’re very insistent on the comprehensible approach of teaching languages. That’s why our lessons are centered around a core dialogue that’s high frequency and natural, we then extract the vocabulary and grammar structures from it, not the other way around.

We want to present language to learners in a way that’s rich with context and authenticity. We don’t want to disembody language from real life and have learners simply memorie words, phases or repeat after a robotic voice.  We believe that learners should learn languages in a way that preserves who they are, how they are going to use it. In short, we want to make sure that you speak like you in a new language, not a robot.

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.

The importance of ‘edutainment’ in language learning

‘We don’t deserve students’ attention, we earn it!’  This is a motto that I live by in my daily work, a thought perhaps echoed by many who teach adults or young kids. Students come to the classroom and go through motions, but are they really learning? As educators, we are competing with all sorts of media distractions for students’ time and attention. The internet and mobile devices have made it an even more fierce and head-on collision. But instead of fighting or ignoring it, we can actually take our cue from the media to make our work better.

Those who’ve seen Sal Khan’s videos can probably attest to his amazing gift in explaining complicated concepts and connecting with students. This ability is especially important in the lecture and input stage to introduce key concepts to students. It can also be found in many teachers, but not all. However, with the help of technology and multimedia, we can now centralize engaging and effective instruction and broadcast it to masses of students so that they can benefit from the best instruction.

There’s an crucial element in this types of lesson media, one that I call ‘edutainment’ where the content is as engaging as it is educational. Think about your favorite teacher at school and what they did to ignite your interest and engage you with the subject. You looked forward to their class and each class was a deeply rewarding and fun experience. You would never fall asleep listening to them. They were superstars in their arena. That’s what I am talking about.

At ChinesePod, we pioneered the concept of ‘edutainment’. It led me to firmly believe in the power of edutainment in inspiring students and delivering great instruction at scale. There are innate qualities which make one an ‘edutainer’ but there’s a lot that can be defined, trained and practised. I’ve often found that the best teacher presenters might not be the best curriculum designer or writer. Different skill sets are required. When setting up a team to curate edutainment content, I look for people with different skills to balance engaging star quality and academic depth. If one overrides the other (and there are many examples of that), the content isn’t going to help students succeed. The pedagogy needs to be the backbone; the engaging factor brings it to life.

In the past year, I’ve had the chance to coach other language educators to produce and publish their edutainment content on OpenLanguage. I am very proud of the results we’ve achieved with teams such as Arabic Anywhere and Ruspod who are creating deeply engaging content with solid academic design. One of the other products on OpenLanguage EnglishPod China was recently awarded Best Education Content in 2012 by iTunes China. And I keep mentoring new teams to help  educators produce and distribute their language courses on OpenLanguage. I hope our work will help students get high quality edutainment content from the best teacher presenters and academic experts no matter what language they are learning.

But edutainment alone isn’t enough. It’s best used in the input stage to get the ball rolling. Students need tons of study, practice and feedback to internalize the language. I will write about my experience designing those in future posts. For now, let’s hold the thought and work to engage students.


Why most language apps won’t help you learn a language

I am a huge advocate for using mobile technology in language learning. In fact, the centerpiece of OpenLanguage is our Tablet Textbook app. There are too many inefficiencies standing in the way of students and teachers that technology can step in to fix.

However, I also believe that technology is only the plumbing. It’s not the methodology. In order to learn a language, you need input, study, practice and review. But most language apps are not designed with this framework in mind (nor are many books or classroom studies). They tend to only target a very narrow aspect of language learning, e.g. vocabulary or grammar and imply that students will be able to learn a language this way. Granted that many learners might only use these apps as a small part of their learning or consuming them as rewarding gaming experiences. But if you are remotely serious about language learning, knowing 500 words or a bunch of grammar rules won’t get you there.

If you are learning a language to communicate in real life, you need what the extraordinary linguist Stephen Krashen calls ‘comprehensible input‘. It means that the language you are learning should be presented to you with lots of context, messages or clues. But having those visual and audio clues alone are not enough. The language also needs to be realistic, authentic and high frequency, i.e. language that people actually use. That’s why using dialogues is one of the most powerful ways to learn a language. They give students lots of context about the language and mirror the exchanges in real life. I am not saying that there’s no place for vocabulary and grammar. But those should come from a natural dialogue rather than being disembodied and presented to students as an end on their own. They are means to an end, the end being using them to communicate. Starting the other way around with words or grammar, you end up knowing a bunch of isolated words and rules but still unable to communicate using the language. I’ve repeatedly seen the power of this approach at my work. And that’s also why we insist that on OpenLanguage, all lessons start with a natural and level-appropriate dialogue and then broken down to words and grammar structures, NOT the other way around.

The purpose of this post is not to discredit language apps. If anything, we need more apps that seamlessly blend technology and pedagogy. If you are using a vocabulary or grammar app, by all means continue to benefit from it. But also look for other resources that help you put what you’ve learned in context so that you can really communicate in the language you are learning.