Learning Languages in Context
Startup Live Mocha leverages social networking to teach foreign languages.
A startup called Live Mocha, based in Bellevue, WA, aims to harness the power of online social networking to help language students learn and stay motivated. The site, launched in late September at this year’s DEMO conference, combines immersive language lessons with an international community of native speakers.
CEO Shirish Nadkarni says that the economic opportunities he gained by learning English, which is a second language for him, taught him the importance of language instruction. However, it was his personal frustration with his kids’ experience learning Spanish in school that inspired him to found Live Mocha. “My kids have good vocabulary and so forth,” he says, “but they cannot carry out a conversation in Spanish, and that’s the real goal that we’re all after.”
Live Mocha is designed to emphasize conversation with partners found through the site’s social network. All its functions are browser based, requiring no downloads. While users can study a language solo through the type of lessons typically found on instructional CD-ROM programs, they are encouraged to use the site’s search function to identify and contact native speakers of their target language. The site provides canned conversational scripts as guidelines for pronunciation practice, as well as prompts for writing and dialogue. Users can chat with each other through a text-based interface, or through voice or webcam. “We expect the community to come in and use their native-language proficiencies to provide more explanation–grammar tips, alternate phrases, or colloquialisms–allowing people to build a much better understanding of the language and how it might be spoken in different parts of the world,” Nadkarni says. “This is a lot more instructive and more dynamic than a static CD-ROM.”
In addition to providing real-world perspective on how a language is spoken by natives, Nadkarni says that the social-network aspect of the site will keep users motivated as they form friendships with native speakers. “I can look at people’s profiles, see how engaged they are in the process, where they are in the lesson plan, and how active they are in the community,” he says. “From there, I can truly build a list of study partners that are as motivated as I am to learn.”
Gail Keech, who tested the site in its early stages of development, says that its social network pushed her to study languages beyond the German she set out to learn. “I started Chinese because so many native Chinese speakers were contacting me via chat and text messaging [to practice their English], and I thought it was a great opportunity to interact and experience Chinese,” she says. Keech adds that she likes being part of a social network that isn’t focused on dating, and she enjoys practicing a foreign language in a way that gives cultural perspective. “Topics of discussion have ranged from the one-child policy in China to international football (our soccer), school curriculums and foreign-exchange programs, and what the proper term for ‘ice cream’ is in German,” she says.
Michael Bush, an associate professor of French and instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, says that he admires the site’s use of social networking. “In the right setting, it is possible in a one-on-one situation for the teacher to be a native speaker of the language, or perhaps even another learner who is more advanced–a key factor that the developers of Live Mocha have recognized,” he says. Bush would like to see “more culturally authentic pictures and voices that match the pictures” in the site’s solo instructional materials, however.
Live Mocha is still in its testing phase, and Nadkarni says that he expects it to remain so until early next year. At that point, several new features will be introduced. The site will support 25 languages in addition to the English, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, French, and German it currently offers. It will also launch applications designed to run within the social networks Facebook and hi5. Nadkarni says he expects that connecting with hi5 in particular, which is known for its popularity in Latin America and other parts of the world, will help bring a larger international base of users to the site.
Nadkarni expects the site to make money through several channels. Although some content will always be free, he says, Live Mocha will add a subscription layer early next year that will cost $10 to $20 a month. It will also feature travel advertising and a tutor marketplace. Nadkarni says that he eventually hopes to add a closed network especially for high-school students, which could help them practice conversational skills while learning about the world.