by Clint Schmidt
Like many great innovations, the premise seems obvious in hindsight. Shirish Nadkarni, the founder of Livemocha, was traveling with his family in Spain and was discouraged to find that years of solid marks in high school Spanish classes had not adequately equipped his teenage kids to engage in basic conversations with native speakers. Upon returning to their hotel room, the kids were glued to Facebook. So the thought struck him: why not bring the powerful dynamics of online social networks to bear on practical language learning? The concept of Livemocha was born.
Fast forward just 3 years, and Livemocha has become the largest language learning community in the world, with over 5 million members in more than 200 countries. The driving force behind the Livemocha is reciprocity: online language learners help one another with free and paid courses in over 30 languages by offering tips and feedback to improve. Livemocha members are an enthusiastic bunch, and the growth of Livemocha has been driven almost entirely by word-of-mouth. As the Internet expands and the world continues to “go digital”, the emergence of Livemocha begs the question: is this the future of language learning?
The traditional pedagogical approach to language learning, with a teacher and a textbook, has served humanity well for hundreds of years. Like other academic disciplines, the right mix of expert instruction and comprehensive content, delivered in a sensible sequence, can be effective in teaching a new language. Immersion, whereby the learner is surrounded by native speakers and must decipher meanings and communication in real-time, is as old as humanity itself. But if the unique benefits of the Internet make it possible to combine and apply components of both of these proven approaches to make language learning easier, more effective, or both. Observations of the Livemocha experience serve as a relevant guide in this learning evolution.
First, one attribute that Livemocha leverages is the concept of language pairs. For example, for a Spanish native speaker who wants to learn Russian, it’s helpful to present the new Russian words and phrases in their native Spanish. Livemocha support thousands of language pairs, exploiting the inherent advantage and scale of the Internet to provide the “long-tail” of language pairs and content to every corner of planet at a very low cost.
Second, unless the language learner has friends nearby to teach them, or enough money to travel to a foreign country, the cost of instruction time is a factor that must be taken into account. But on Livemocha, some of the online self-study exercises are automatically graded to provide immediate feedback. The remaining exercises in each course are speaking and writing submissions that are reviewed by native speakers who offer tips to improve – for free!
Here’s where the reciprocity comes into play: upon receiving free tips and help, Livemocha members show appreciation by helping other members learning their native language. This innovative but instinctively human way to learn a new language is woven into every Livemocha course, which is important in ensuring the right context for every interaction. With a well-defined objective for both learner and reviewer, the resulting instruction is relevant, useful, and free.
Finally, as Livemocha members exchange feedback over time, the experience naturally evolves to include cultural sharing with a social micro-network of helpful language partners. Interactions with these language partners serve as a great way to put language skills into practice, and provide motivation to keep learning. Learning a language requires persistence, and the practice opportunities and motivation derived from the Livemocha experience are critical factors that are often difficult for traditional conventional classroom environments to provide or sustain.
The numbers clearly indicate that Livemocha’s peer learning phenomenon is growing. Over 1 million learning tips are exchanged within the Livemocha community every month, and thousands of flashcard sets in dozens of languages have been contributed by a fast-growing global crowd. Livemocha further bolstered the caliber of the service when it partnered with Pearson Education to launch Livemocha Active English, an award-winning premium course with new customers in over 100 countries within just a few months.
Experience shows that people like to learn from real human beings, and they seems to appreciate the convenience of online learning, and Livemocha provides both. Interestingly, although Livemocha was designed as a self-study experience, the company receives messages, posts, and tweets from teachers, university professors, and home-schoolers that have opted to use Livemocha as part of their curriculum. They take advantage of basic free courses to connect and practice with other members from all over the world, but also purchase paid-only courses (like the Active English course powered by Pearson) that include conversational videos, in-depth grammar and advanced levels that align with the Common European Framework. It’s yet another interesting approach that could integrate teachers into the experience.
Livemocha is pursuing an ambitious goal: to change the way people learn a language, and make it more accessible, more affordable, more fun, and more effective. Globalization and immigration are making language learning more important than ever before, and many people do not possess the means to afford classroom instruction or immerse themselves in a foreign country. But when people help one another, barriers are overcome and amazing things can happen. Livemocha may have tapped into an acute need and a basic human tendency to share knowledge, bringing the world a little closer in the process.