uSpeak Wants to Turn Theory Into Practice With Mobile Language Learning

Spanish startup uSpeak thinks that the time has come for something different in digital language learning. It’s not alone, either; a recent rash of startups has emerged to challenge the software-based language education market, including busuu, Verbling, and GoGo Lingo to name a few. The market could use some shaking up, since it’s been long dominated by perennial favorite desktop software Rosetta Stone (which actually recently acquired the aforementioned GoGo Lingo to boost its kid-focused offerings). Uspeak co-founder Andres Burdett agrees, and he thinks his company has an approach rooted in pedagogical theory that will set it apart.

“All the pedagogical reasoning behind the current methods is pretty out of date,” he said. “That’s not to say that what we’re doing is revolutionary in terms of the research that has been done. What it is, is a first step to the commercialization and the popularization of things that are being used in MIT, in Haapsalu in Finland, or in Oxford, places like that where this information is held, but it’s also very accessible.”

Burdett says that having a team that’s young and deeply interested and practiced in this kind of educational research helps the startup be in a better position to put these principals into action. To date, no one has taken advantage of these advances because, Burdett argues, they’ve been too focused on playing catch-up with the pace of technology, using existing materials and methods and the underpinning of new delivery vectors for education.

“What we’ve seen is the digitalization of textbooks, and textbooks were one-size fits all,” he said. “And what has happened is by adding a few sounds, and adding recorded voice we haven’t seen a quantum leap forward because there’s still that basis of ‘I’m going to see the same material that you’re going to see,’ and it’s going to be in a linear fashion, organized by semantic units, and it doesn’t connect to the real way in which we learn language.”

Rather than learning in separate units grouped around a class of object, for instance, Burdett contends that we each learn words differently depending on our home and social context. The problem with language learning as it currently exists is that it doesn’t address the highly personal nature of picking up vocabulary, which is what uSpeak will attempt to address via its iPad an iPhone apps, which will be releasing publicly soon. The startup is currently in invite-only beta, as it works on gathering feedback for its “learning path” recommendation engine before launching to the public.

uSpeak will debut with more of a focus on individualized learning through games designed to be fun for all ages and highly replayable, but Burdett also says there will eventually be a significant social component to the product, too. That’s reflected in launch partner Tuenti, a Spain-based social networking site aimed squarely at students, who Burdett says want the application because use from people who download the app reflects high repeat use and lengthy individual sessions.

As mentioned, uSpeak has lots of competition both in terms of adaptive learning and language instruction startups, but Burdett thinks the combination of the two should drive unique results. “There are startups in the U.S. doing pretty cool things in the education space, including Newton, which does more or less the same as us but their target is schools, and delivering information for the personalization of education,” Burdett said. “The difference between us and them is that us, working with language, gives us lots more opportunities to get to know the students.”

Language education is a massive worldwide opportunity, especially given the globalization of communication and business via the web. And it’s also a market in need of significant change, since traditional private language schools still generally use the same rote methods of textbooks aimed at broad-based learner levels to teach, and software has yet to really take advantage of everything changes in mobile tech have afforded it. uSpeak, with its game-based approach and desire to implement some of the latest in pedagogical research, could be at the forefront of a new wave of language learning tools.

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