Language learning: where it came from and where it’s going

Language learning during the 19th century was marked by an intent focus on the benefits of the simple intellectual challenge. Latin was a popular subject for study not for any practical value, but because the prevailing thought was that internalizing a library of irregular conjugations and sentence patterns was the ultimate brain teaser. From this, academics began formulating formal approaches to language learning stressing grammar patterns and rote memorization. Reading and writing proficiency were the goal.

The 20th century saw a pragmatic shift towards speaking. New approaches and methodologies championed the ability to speak and communicate with the language, rather than just construct it from a series of rules. This way of thinking has become ingrained, and for obvious reasons. Now, we are all one business trip, one Skype call, one affordable flight away from needing our language skills to prevail at communication immediately. Burlitz, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone rode this wave of innovation and have contributed to today’s unwavering demand that effective speaking be the deliverable of any language school or product.

Most recently, the conversation has turned to interaction. Not obvious at first glance, interaction and speaking are fundamentally different conceptions of the learning process. The final product – communicative fluency – may be the same, but since we all expect to be able to use our language skills in some capacity short of perfection, the journey is more import than the destination. As an extreme image, consider learning immaculate pronunciation and sentence-construction by listening to a tape recording and repeating to a brick wall. Compare this to the philosophy underpinning interaction: sitting in a room with a native speaker who doesn’t know your language either, pointing at objects, and wrestling to teach each other simple nouns. According to the interaction school of thought, speaking is just an artifact of real communication; real value derives from the mutual struggle to meet in the middle and working to grow an intersection (comprising words, sentences, facial expressions, gestures, whatever) where communication can occur. This way of thinking has led to some language products that market their methodologies as helping you learn as you did when you were a small child.

I think the evolution in thinking about language learning over the last two centuries has been for great benefit. Learning Latin to read the classics and bend your brain is great, but our increasingly interconnected world demands a pragmatic approach that gets people talking to each other as quickly and easily as possible. I do think, however, that this line of thinking can be overdrawn. Thinking that language learning as a teen or adult should replicate the processes by which we learned as a child, for example, sounds nice but is an oversimplification. Another example is a branch of thought that holds that the primary language should never be used in teaching the secondary language: in some cases, though, comparing grammar and vocabulary can be extremely informative and natural. Not to mention that different individual learning styles may actually be served better with a less bleeding-edge interactive approach.

Two weeks of Beta

We sent out our first official beta accounts about two weeks ago and have since then seen over a hundred teachers use Lingt. We couldn’t be happier with the reception – the enthusiasm and willingness to engage new technology has been very exciting from our end. Feedback has been great as well: we’ve already incorporated many of the suggestions that have come in  and are making sense of many other to determine what the next big step for us will be.  We’re also thrilled to see what teachers are coming up with: just after two weeks, we’ve got teachers using Lingt in countries all over the world and making assignments in English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Korean, Chinese, German, and Japanese. We can’t wait to see the number of classrooms benefiting from technology continue to grow.

Our kind of VC

Fred Wilson, a VC in New York, recently wrote a synopsis of an education technology brainstorm hosted by his investment firm. The thinking there seems to be very much in line with our own vision. I look forward to seeing the fruition of many of these ideas – in new ventures and new policy – as well as the education companies Union Square Ventures chooses to back in the future.

Check out the article here.

Private Beta Launched

We are very excited to announce the launch of our first stable private beta. Until now, our users have been intimate contacts that were patient as we constantly changed things according to their feedback and accidentally introduced the occasional bug. Today, we’re giving out a (hopefully) stable version to the long list of teachers, private tutors, and others who have signed up to demo and have been patiently waiting. Our goal is still to gather feedback on how to make the Lingt editor better serve language teachers and students, so everything is still absolutely free. We won’t be able to grant unlimited demo accounts, but if you have a colleague or friend that would like to use Lingt, we’d love to hear from them.

Bringing web innovation to education

“Web 2.0” is now a hokey buzz word, but at one time represented a comprehensive approach to making web applications. This philosophy stressed simple designs, elegant interfaces, open data exchange, and, more intrinsically, fast and focused products. Small teams of talented engineers staked out their claim to a particular niche and, needing not much more than rent money, built something workable in a matter of weeks or months. In stark contrast to the mad dash for venture capital during the dot-com bubble, companies started showing off their boot-strapping scars instead of their treasuries.

This modus operandi, I think, has served the web community well. Large investment isn’t prerequisite to starting an Internet venture – meaning that competitive advantage is often only a function of talent and ability to adapt. Of course, when a handful of students working from a dorm room can (and do) disrupt established players, the speed of innovation can be dizzying.  In addition, instead of having software monoliths that attempt to provide a comprehensive online platform that addresses all my needs (the old AOL and Yahoo), I can now use many different services – each one extremely good at what it does, be it financial management, providing news that I like, or helping Lingt develop technology.

Web innovation in the education market will do well to adopt the same intensely-focused-rapid-innovation mantra. Luckily, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that it has already begun to do so. BetterLesson.org, another Boston-based education venture, is tackling collaborative curriculum development with an attractive and very intuitive web interface. Quizlet, started by a current MIT freshman, aims to make online flashcards extremely easy. There are numerous young ventures focusing only on facilitating private tutoring with webcams. All of these companies are small, smart, and extremely focused on providing excellent solutions to very specific problems. We live and work this way ourselves: we realize that foreign language education is a multi-faceted and complex process, but decided to take one component of that process that we thought the most important – learning to speak the language – and built an application that we think improves upon that greatly. Certainly, there are other important parts of learning a language (like memorizing vocabulary, for example), but instead of trying to conjure a generalized solution, it’s better to build iteratively, making sure each piece is really solving one problem before trying to carry them all.

My hope is that this way of thinking will inspire new educational ventures to emerge with highly tailored and highly effective web applications that ultimately give teachers and schools more affordable and higher quality options in enhancing their classrooms with technology.