Tag Archives: Summly

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.