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 OpenLanguage Learner’s Series: conversation with a reluctant polyglot 

Today OpenLanguage co-founder Jenny interviews Orlando Kelm, Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at University of Texas, Austin.

Though his profession is teaching Hispanic languages, Orlando also found he was passionate about learning Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese. Jenny talks to Orlando about whether he is one of those blessed with a language brain or is there anything else at work to produce a successful language learner? They delve into the learning methodology for different languages, how to stay motivated when motivation is running low and whether ‘polyglots’ should be role models for language learners. They also explore whether a few key learning trends such as mobile learning and Flipped Classroom are a fad or the future of learning.

New Subscription Types

Our existing Standard Subscription gives you full access to all the learning materials for each language on OpenLanguage. You can use this account on your tablet, smart phone or computer and sync your account across all your devices.

To give you more options with your language studies, today we are adding two new subscription types.

The Friends & Family Subscription
As avid language learners ourselves, we understood maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language. Unlike others skills, acquiring a language takes months, if not years, to achieve. To help you stay committed we are launching a ‘Friends & Family Subscription’ which gives you a complimentary account to share with a colleague, language teacher or family member. We believe having someone to push you just a little bit will help you be more successful. Simply choose this subscription type and then invite the lucky study partner of your choice!

The Unlimited Subscription
Next, we are adding an ‘Unlimited Subscription’ which will give you access to all the languages currently available on OpenLanguage and all the new ones we add in the future. This is a great option for the true linguaphile, or as we prefer ‘language nerd’. In fact, if you purchase an Annual Unlimited Subscription we will even throw in one of our cool new t-shirts.


Unlimited Subscriptions also include a complimentary account, like the Friends & Family Subscription, so you have no more excuses not to pick up that language you have been putting off!

Click here to check our the details of these new subscription plans.

Finally, we have special offers available for both K12 and university institutions to help them bring the Tablet Textbook into their classrooms. Contact us for more details.

Feedback powers our future development at OpenLanguage, so don’t be shy about what you want use to develop.

Good luck with your studies!

Hank Horkoff, OpenLanguage Co-Founder

5 tips for how to stay motivated when learning a new language

Motivation can be the hard part of learning any language. In this busy world it’s hard to keep a consistent level of excitement in learning a new language. Certain parts of every language can be a stumbling block, and even as we get better our goal of conversational or fluent ability can seem further and further away. But with dedication, and help from these 5 tips you should be able to maintain that motivation and power through any obstacles.

1) Pick a language for the right reason: genuine interest. If you’re not interested in the language you’re learning it will be hard to stay motivated. But if you have a good reason for learning, and you want to see it through, anyone can learn a new language.

2)  Find something to strive for. If you have a clear goal in mind, and a reason for learning, it can make everything simpler. Do you want to be able to speak to your girlfriend’s parents in her native tongue? Or maybe you want to be able to read a book, or watch movies in their original language. It could even be just to impress your friends or parents, but whatever the reason, hold it clear in your mind every time you plan to study and you will be able to find that illusive motivation you’re looking for.

3)  Travel to the country where they speak the language you’re studying. This is a great reason to travel. If you’re studying a foreign language, one of the best ways to learn is to immerse yourself in the language and culture. The best way to do that is to be in an environment where everyone is a native speaker. Not only that, but being able to get around and travel in a foreign language is exhilarating and can open doors that you might never have opened speaking English.

4) Fight off the urge to procrastinate. If you have trouble studying for longer periods, break your sessions into 10 or 15 minute blocks. This can help you by creating smaller, manageable goals. You can also set deadlines for yourself, or use language studying to procrastinate from doing another task :)

5) Create a study log. Keeping track of when and what you’re studying will help you understand when you are most productive. You can also record audio of yourself speaking the language and then you will be able to hear just how much progress you’ve made.

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.

Top 5- Most Common Mistakes Made by English Learners

There are several mistakes that I hear all the time from English learners.  Some of these are  easy corrections to make that maybe you just weren’t aware of and the others may take more time to work on and may give trouble to even advanced English speakers.  Check this list to make sure you don’t make these mistakes!

Funny sign: Tripping Hazard

1.    Misuse of fun/funny- This is a common mistake that many English learners make.  Fun is something that is entertaining or enjoyable.  Going to the amusement park is ‘fun’.  Funny is something or someone that makes you laugh.    A comedian is ‘funny’.

2.    Articles- This is tough even for many intermediate-advanced speakers.  Remembering to use ‘a’ and ‘the’ and how to distinguish between which one to use can be very tricky for many English learners.  The trick is that ‘the’ is called a definite article, used to describe a specific thing. ‘A’ is called an indefinite article and describes something general and not specific.

“I’m going to the library.” – This probably refers to a specific library that the person you are speaking with will understand.  Maybe there is only one library or it is the library that you often visit.

“I’m going to a party tonight.” – When you say this, it most likely means that the person you’re speaking with is not familiar with the party and you are not specifying which party you will attend.

3.    Misuse of bored/boring- This is similar to the fun/funny mistake.  This leads to a lot of funny statements from people mixing up the two words to incorrectly proclaim, “I am boring!”  Bored describes the feeling of the state that you are in.  “This television show is not interesting.  I am bored.”  Boring describes a person or thing that makes you feel bored.  “This television show is not funny, it is very boring!”   When you say, “I am boring”, you are saying that you are not interesting!

4.    Gender Specific Pronouns- Most common mistakes are due to the fact that the language point doesn’t exist in the speaker’s native tongue.  For example, in Chinese, no gender is specified in the spoken language, so many Chinese speakers mix up “He/She/Him/Her” when speaking.  This is just one of those mistakes that has to be practiced, and it usually doesn’t interfere with communication; it just makes for funny and/or embarrassing situations!

5.    Singular/Plural nouns- Another common error, students often forget to put the ‘s’ on the end of words to make them plural. To create further problems for English speakers, there are other rules involving singular/plural nouns, such as whether an object is countable/uncountable, that leads to further confusion.  A general rule is that if you can’t count the object (water, information, knowledge, etc), you don’t add the ‘s’.  “There is a lot of water in that glass!”