As some of you might already know, I was invited to give short presentation and act as “agent provocateur” at the Languages and Business Forum 2013 in Berlin two weeks ago. I spoke of trends I see happening at the intersection of technology and learning that make an impact on how we learn languages these days and in the near(er) future.
During a chat around the event the discussion came to the point as to why language learning as a business, so both more established companies and startups alike as well as individual tutors, seem to be faced with more problems around making money off of their teaching/service than service providers in other verticals of the learning market tend to experience.
I know, this might be a brutal generalization as there are also examples of businesses that seem to prove this wrong; I myself had a thriving tutoring business online without the difficulty of finding paying customers.
I also just recently read an article in The Guardian that tutoring was actually one of the (few) booming markets in the UK, and I hope this is true for language tuition. Furthermore online offers by language learning providers such as busuu, babbel.com or Voxy, so to speak businesses that need and want to make money, seem to prove that there is a market for paid offers.
However, I must admit that a feeling deep down inside me exists, the notion that learning a language is not regarded as valuable by many people as say coding, just to use one of the most hyped verticals of the moment as an example. Watching the code.org video leaves me with the impression that simply knowing how to code will provide kids with a better life. Eventually, it will not. But this is for another post.
So where is this enthusiasm for languages?
Sure, we all love duolingo. But why? Because it’s free? I think, at first glance, this is correct.
But I reckon, what really “sells” people on duolingo, to use this verb inappropriately, what counts for duolingo is its higher purpose of providing high-quality education to the world for free. It’s not necessarily about languages. In this point, the mission or premise is very similar to Salman Khan’s Khan Academy.
Apart from that, when I ask startup founders today like I did the past as to the why they launched something in the online language learning space, I often get the stereotype answer that they have always had a passion for languages. Well, this might be true for some of them. For the majority, however, I sense it was simply the easiest solution both in terms of the technology and because they had heard of language learning as a huge market.
I am still genuinely surprised that founders pitch me for “an online marketplace for languages where tutors can find students and students find the best tutor to fit their individual needs”. Sometimes with a bit of local baked in, sometimes with a fairtrade aspect. Essentially, the same old pitch I have gotten since 2009, and ignoring all of the startups that didn’t make it in that exact vertical. But sure, if you found the holy grail go ahead! I will not hold you back, you wouldn’t listen anyway.
Anyhow, to come back to the chat, an interesting point came up, and I would just like to put it out there as a thought, maybe a thesis. I would like to engage in more conversations around it, for sure.
I might be paraphrasing here, but the essence was that from school everybody has an opinion on languages and how to learn them. Unlike coding or some of the STEM subjects where people seem to see more (depth, challenge etc.) in them, languages seem to be marginalized to learn vocabulary and some grammar rules, learn them by heart, then practice a bit and you’ll master the language to a decent level.
As stated above, learning how to code or math and physics seem to have something bigger to them. What are my readers’ opinions? Where do you see the reasons that language learning suffers a bit more or maybe lacks the image and importance of some of the verticals we currently read so much about in education and tech news?
Let’s exchange views in the comments.