How former language teachers took over the world just to find the talking gap at the other end

I started studying the market segment of the small businesses for language learning with the purpose of detecting a market niche during the course of the Founder Institute program for startups at Frankfurt, which was extremely valuable.

Online language learning has exploded during the last years: from a few language apps, like Duolingo, to a wealth of YouTube channels, hundreds of blogs and podcasts, you name it. There are a few huge language businesses offering their polished apps like, well, Duolingo, but…

When I saw a couple of years ago the demo of Google Duplex, the beta version of Google Assistant, it was a truly jaw-dropping moment to me (and many others). Perhaps you remember the dialog:

  • (phone rings) Hi how can I help you?
  • “Hi, I’m calling to book a women’s haircut for a client, I’m looking for something on May 3rd.”
  • “Sure, give me one second.”
  • “Mm-hmm.”
  • “Sure what time are you looking for around?”
  • “At 12 pm.”
  • “We do not have a 12 pm available. The closest we have to that is a 1:15.”
  • “Do you have anything between…

Why there is so much self-study content and so few talking opportunities

If you wanted to learn a language some 30 years ago, the default path was to enroll in a language school (I mean, a brick-and-mortar school), show up there at least once a week, take your lesson, come back home, eventually do your homework, repeat this next week. Or else, if you were wealthy or adventurous enough, you just moved to live in the country when the language was spoken. …

That’s a lot of “learning”, isn’t it? (at least in the title). Yes and no, because the former (Language Learning, LL for short) is done by humans, while the latter (Machine Learning, ML) is done by a computer.

The idea is to use the power of ML, one of the most prominent and fast-growing branches of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to support in some way the LL student for improving her/his language skills. …

Pilot issue

Though I’ve been posting some articles related to the technology displayed (or not) in Language Learning (LL) applications, this is the first post in a new series specifically for discussing the tech trends that we see, and sometimes I’ll analyze a specific product and give you my take, from the tech point of view.

Why LL, in the first place?

Well, if you are here, very probably you are a LL enthusiast or even a polyglot. We, the LL community, always want to incorporate additional resources to our toolbox, to share our experiences and to help each other…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Every week or so I see mysterious advertisements like “I talked in Spanish after only 15 days”, or “Discover the secret to learning a language in 10 days”.

They say they use a sort of an “accelerated learning methodology” that will remove the hidden blockage that had always stopped you from learning a language. How amazing is that?

Of course, in the real world, there is no such thing as a “secret” for learning languages in magic ways, as if there was a kind of conspiracy of language schools, hiding the “real” learning methods from you.

But how can we…

It’s not you; it’s them

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Many of us, not born in an English-speaking country, had the experience of taking English classes in school for years and years, only to find out later on that we didn’t actually speak nor understand spoken English. You were utterly unable to comprehend an English-spoken movie without subtitles. You struggled to give that little presentation in Engish.

What happened? Why have you failed despite your excellent grades in the English class? Are you not a “language skilled” person?

Fortunately for you –and me, and many others– the answer to this question is negative. We are…

Which tech will actually cut it

I‘m aware that tech predictions and futurology are not very reliable endeavors: just look at how the future was seen in 1970’s pop culture, Jetson’s style: spacesuits for everyone, flying cars, robotic maids, and so on. But look at us now: not a single one of these visions is at sight, and the Internet, which was not predicted back then, rules our lives.

But I’ll try anyway, at least restricted to the EdTech for language learning (LL for short). …

Everything else is just marketing noise

In the last decade, many Language learning (LL) apps and courses have been thrown into the market; among the well-established apps, I have tried courses without a teacher like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone (more on these ones later), Babbel, Busuu; vocabulary flashcard apps like Memrise; video chat apps like Tandem and audio-only chat apps like SpeakNative, and Buddytalk. I have also tried teacher-based apps like iTalki as well as some of the apps that there are for every single online language school in the world (English Central, Open English, EF, etc.) My iPhone home screen…

Hector Garcia-Molina passed away less than a month ago but will be remembered by many at Stanford, at Google, and at the Monterrey Tec

HGM, 2nd from the left

Last year, in the middle of the scorching Monterrey summer, Hector Garcia-Molina came from Stanford to give talks and meet some people at the Monterrey Tec, in one of his many and highly appreciated visits. The photo above was from his meeting with the research group on AI where I work. But don’t think it was a very technical discussion about how databases relate to AI. No, we basically catch up with what he was doing at Stanford, and frankly, we gossiped a lot.

I asked him many questions about his role in Google’s creation. You know, my curiosity about…

Ramon Brena

Former AI researcher, CEO of Avalinguo

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