Language Training in the Cloud


I’m going to suggest that the language training business might give a clue as to how businesses might change in the future.

The insight comes from my project of learning the Romanian language, and you can see the screen has me at a 145 day streak, at level 24.  I will be reaching their highest level of 25 shortly, and I will admit I don’t know exactly what will happen then.

Learning languages is still a booming business out there.  There is a group of travellers, businessfolks, language hobbyists [more in Europe than in North America], who for fun or profit are working away at a host of different languages.  And a range of different language training companies, courses, programs — and now, apps — helping to meet the need.

But the business is changing.

Not long ago, people were spending serious dollars loading up on tapes and compact discs.  Companies like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur were charging several hundred dollars, and the results were mixed at best.  Each program had its own method and strengths.  I had dabbled with Pimsleur some years ago, and I believe that it could have been the best approach at teaching the skills at hearing the different sounds, as long as you had the patience to stick with the program.

Along come the online programs.  Memrise, Duolingo, babbel and many others.  Most of them are free, funded by advertising, or with a optional premium subscription for more features.

What I find most interesting is that most of these sites work on a model that minimizes the amount of paid staff needed to make the site run and improve itself.  Some of the sites are almost completely crowd -sourced.  Memrise, for instance, depends on volunteers to put up the vocabulary and the recorded sounds.  Sure, there was obviously a developer who built the site, and some pros who figured out the algorithms that suggested how many times you need to get an answer right to ‘learn’ it, and how many days later you need to be reminded in order to keep it in your memory.  But once that model was built, the replication into more languages and more words in each language is all done by volunteers.  Sometimes it is clear that you get what you pay for, and especially in the lower traffic parts of the site there are some pretty obvious errors and the route to fix them is not always clear.

The best of these sites are the ones that channel the enthusiasm of their user base — those of us learning the languages — to improve the quality of the program.

Take Duolingo, for example.  Their Learn Romanian (for English speakers) program is still in beta.   As you move through the various levels, you are translating sentences from Romanian into English, and many times it will reject a response I suspect must be correct.  For example, the program is looking for  “He is the most proud boy”…. where I am told that my answer (“He is the proudest boy”) is incorrect.  Duolingo gives me the opportunity to click a box that “My answer should be accepted.”  And a few days later, a QR guy working (or volunteering?) for Duolingo comes along and gives me a little email directly, saying that they have accepted my answer, meaning that all future users of the program will have the benefit of this change, and thanking me for contributing to a better program.

What the Cloud has permitted here is that my (volunteer) contribution is now part of Duolingo’s learning.  And for the psychic satisfaction of receiving emails from their QR guy, I am obediently clicking that box and improving their Romanian course every time I hit a roadblock that I don’t view as justified.  And about 60 times, the Duolingo people have thanked me for improving the program.

My observation is these companies are finding a way to replace the folks that one day would have been employed by a Rosetta Stone, by a much smaller group of computer developers — plus the expertise of crowdsourced volunteers/users.

Ah, but some of you may have noticed that I haven’t touched much upon one rather important variable:  do these cloud-sourced programs actually work at teaching languages?  And the truthful answer is that I really don’t know.  In my case, while I am clearly a lot better after a few months of intense work, I really don’t know if I am ‘good enough’.  There are some language pros who say that Duolingo is pretty useful (although a bit weak in the conversational side).

But every student is a special case…based on how they learn and what they already knew.  Personally, I am not bad at taking a language to some type of an intermediate level…but have difficulty getting over the hump to fluency.  That will likely take an immersion experience — something more persistent than me sitting in front of my computer screen.  And, possibly, a better answer to the question:  “Exactly why am I doing this, again?”













The Economist, and its coverage of Romania


Grindeanu Economist.jpg

I’ve been a subscriber to The Economist “newspaper” for much of the last few decades.  It has thorough international coverage, and I appreciate its editorial perspective, which favours free enterprise and an open democracy.  It’s written with a dry wit throughout.

Its sense of humour might be the reason why The Economist is one of the few publications to give regular coverage of the political goings-on in Romania.  How better to have a funnies section alongside those interminable stories about coalition-building in the EU?

And sure, we all get it.  Dracula, werewolves, and until 1989 communist cult-worship almost as crazy as the North Koreans.  But, in Romania, all delightfully harmless.

But is it possible that the rigid style guide of The Economist might cause it to miss some real news?  Take the article, pictured from their recent June 24, 2017 number — covering the defeat and removal of the Social-Democrat PM by members of his own party.  Starts The Economist:   “In ordinary politics, it is opposition parties who attempt to bring governments down.  But politics in Romania is rarely ordinary.”

Really?  This commentary coming from the United Kingdom, where Mrs Thatcher was ambushed by her own caucus, or where the current Prime Minister is more concerned by a rebellion of her own troops than being toppled by the rabble opposite?

More than a curiosity, last month’s tremors in Bucharest could be signs of growing weakness in the governing Social-Democrats, a party that maintains considerable continuity with the pre-1989 Communist regime.  The ouster of Prime Minister of Prime Minister Grindeanu, less than six months after his appointment by party president Liviu Dragnea, comes at a high cost.  This week, a popular former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, also complaining about the authoritarian style of the party president, announced that he will leave the Social-Democrats to form a new political party.

(And in the reasonably pure Proportional Representation system under which Romania operates, Mr Ponta is known well-enough to quite likely poll more than the 5 per cent minimum threshold that would give his new party seats in the next Parliament.  You could read my analysis of Proportional Representation in earlier posts.)

So, it’s not for the comedy section, but it’s been a bad few weeks for Romania’s governing Social-Democrats.  And if the opposition parties can manage to capitalize, Romania might just manage to complete the anti-Communist revolution that it started, but never quite finished, in 1989.