Learning new languages 2.0

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I was never good at foreign languages in school. I failed my French classes each and every year and my English was as good as I could learn it through what I got from Hollywood. This means forget about s/z differences (pun intended) and please don’t get me started on Future Simple or Passé Composé. 15 years later I do mange to communicate in both those languages to the level that people actually understand what I want to say and vise-versa. My Hollywood English off course is still better than my Bistro French but it took me 15 years to get here just through exercise and not by learning as such.


Now, those 15 years later, I am in a professional position that more languages in the tool-belt are becoming extremely important. Being an EMEA (Europe, Middle-East, Africa) Evangelist for a software company means I get to deal with a dozen languages I don’t speak today. German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Russian, … I think I covered the most important ones here. I didn’t even touch the Nordics here (Danish, Norish, Swedish, Finnish, …) but I guess you got my point.


In an effort to get closer to our customers, partners and even colleagues I decided to do something about that. It’s going to happen and it can’t take me years and years. At least 2, maybe 3 extra languages should be a 2 year goal. Manageable, right? Now we have 2 issues here: I suck at learning and I have no fixed week-schedule due to my traveling. So even if I would be able to be a good student, I wouldn’t make it to class half of the times necessary.


The power of the masses:

Recently I downloaded the App “The Human Face Of Big Data“, that presents a lot of stories how Big Data exists in the real world. One of them was a TEDtalk by Louis von Ahn, the inventor of ReCaptcha. Summarizing the talk in 2 minutes is pretty difficult but I’ll give it a shot: there are millions of people a day using 5-10 seconds of their time to authenticate themselves as a human being on thousands of websites. This is at least 10.000.000 seconds together (=350 days of 8 working hours)! With those seconds today we are all digitizing old scanned books word by word as the human brains is stronger than any OCR program out there (Optical character recognition). Watch the video below for a more detailed explanation. This was where Louis von Ahn found the “power of the masses“.


So what else can we do with millions of people? Let’s change the paradigm: what can’t we do due to lack of those resources today? One of them is translating the internet. Have a look at Wikipedia; only a really small percentage of the pages in English are available in Spanish. So how do we translate all the rest? Throwing it through Google Translate won’t help that much right? And in fact it’s the same issue as with OCR: computer have no context! So we will need hundreds of very expensive translators and a lot of time. Unless … 




DuoLingo:

DuoLingo is the next project of Louis von Ahn. It’s an App that you can download for free to learn new languages. It’s very user friendly, a little game-like with points and levels and the best part is: you learn a new language at your own pace for free! Is it completely free? Not exactly, you are paying with your time. And how can you monetize time? After a few levels, when you master the basics of the language, the app will start giving you sentences of foreign websites to translate in the language you a learning. If 20 people translated it the same way, the translation will be more accurate than any computer program could have ever done it. Multiply this single action for hundreds of thousands of users and here we have “the power of the masses” massively translating the internet.


The app also is a science project as such in learning new languages: it captures what works best to learn new words and grammar over all these users and changes the apps behavior to your personal profile. It will alter the exercises for you differently than for someone else because your profile seems to learn faster through another type of exercises (ie more visuals versus more auditive exercises).


The bet on technology:
Two weeks ago I visited our head quarters in Russia. One night I was telling the aforementioned story and my strong faith in this technology. My Russian colleagues don’t believe in it and swear by instructor-led courses. Today Russian is not open in DuoLingo yet but I did take a strong bet on the technology: from the day that English/Russian is available on DuoLingo I have 6 months to communicate fluently in Russian with a total stranger.

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