Most of the world, at some point, has tried to learn a foreign language. In fact, nearly every single person I know has, including myself. Within the past ten years I’ve tried studying Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. Now, would I call myself quadrilingual? Absolutely not.
There is obviously a threshold between trying to speak a foreign language and actually speaking one, and the line is drawn at just that: speaking. To study anything means nothing unless you apply what you learn, and in the case of foreign languages, your proficiency will only deteriorate unless you practice regularly. It’s why Duolingo bugs its users to review their vocabulary so much they literally became a parody of themselves. It’s also why more than half of people who studied Spanish in high school wouldn’t dare refer to themselves now as a “Spanish speaker”.
Language exchange platforms such as HelloTalk and iTalki have long tried to fill the gap by offering people a place to find other individuals they can practice speaking with so they don’t lose momentum while learning a second language. As a long-term user of several of these platforms, I’ve found that most, if not all, are little more than social network variants that accomplish a fraction of what they set out to achieve.
So, I did what an engineer would do: I built my own.
“Hold the phone. I use [Product X]! What’s wrong with it?”
Before getting too in the weeds here, let’s dive into the root problem first. There are literally hundreds of free apps designed to help you learn a language. Aside from Duolingo, there’s Memrise, Lingodeer, HelloTalk, iTalki, Tandem, Lingvist, HiNative, Bilingua, and the list goes on. You’re probably wondering how all of them could have their own issues. They don't. In fact, most of them just have the same issue. So let’s break it down.
Language Learning Apps
While every language learning app from Rosetta Stone down to Duolingo has its own quirks, pedagogy, and approach, they all contain the same flaw: they’re all discrete. In other words, they all have a start and an end, just like any classroom course. Once you finish all the lessons, you have no choice but to either move on to another app or to just review past lessons. It’s why it’s incredibly hard to keep up with learning a new language after you graduate. There are only so many avenues for growth.
Even if you do review your lessons, you may know how to say “the orange is on the counter” by heart but fail to learn the nuances and minor articulations that come from using those same phrases, patterns, and terms in everyday conversation. It’s like studying law. You could memorize every court case dating back to the 18th century, but it all means nothing unless you can successfully win a court case with that knowledge.
Most importantly, as you can probably imagine, practicing a language in a vacuum like this doesn’t really inspire the confidence in the real-world to strike up a conversation overseas.
Language Exchange Apps
Unlike language learning apps, language exchange apps focus more on two-way conversation, matching language learners with partners who are proficient in the language the other person is learning and vice versa. However, every single one of these apps provides a wide-open, unguided experience for learners. Anyone can search for whoever they want, message whoever they want, and talk to as many people as they want.
While this freedom may sound nice in theory, it comes at a cost. The over saturation of conversations and the freedom-of-choice approach leaves many users “left hanging”, messaging partner after partner and receiving no responses due. I know personally when I signed up for iTalki back in 2010 I would receive hundreds upon hundreds of messages from students in every corner of China asking me to teach them English. There was no way I could respond to them all. It’s no surprise that the top complaint seen across all current platforms is “no one will respond to me”.
Additionally, most language exchange apps have no clear takeaway. Apart from helping you make a few new friends, current language exchange apps serve no real purpose in guiding you on your language learning journey. The task of educating yourself is placed entirely on you and your partner. If you don’t understand something, you might translate it and move on. Maybe you ask your partner what they meant and they explain it to you. Yet there is no way to actively retain or review that knowledge.
Around three years ago I set out to solve these problems for myself. The result? An iOS app called Linguistic.
Linguistic is a language exchange platform that, unlike its competitors, handles partner matching entirely for you, catered to your specific proficiency level and aimed at helping you grow your understanding of the language you’re learning.
Here’s how it works.
1. With the tap of a button, you can request to speak with a native speaker, a fellow learner, or both, from any corner of the world.
2. Once you’re matched, you’re only allotted five chats per week, at which point they’ll expire and disappear forever. This helps keep conversations concise, to the point, and ensures their quality.
3. While chatting, if you don’t understand something your partner has said, simply tap the message and press the magic “Learn” button. Linguistic will automatically tokenize the entire sentence and provide comprehensive explanations for each word in the message. We also support standard language exchange features, such as peer-to-peer correction and vanilla translation.
4. As you chat with more and more people, we’ll employ cutting-edge NLP algorithms to analyze your chat history and begin to construct an idea of your current proficiency level and will graph it as you talk to more and more people. We then use this proficiency level to improve your future matches.
While this may seem like a simple concept, it improves the current landscape by leaps and bounds.
- Chats are curated. By keeping chats limited in quantity, the overall likelihood of receiving responses from your partners is ultimately higher, and by placing the chats on a time limited it helps uphold response rate and message quality. This approach is not only used by apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel but is also backed by research.
- Learn the how, not the what. Simply translating messages only allows you to understand the composite meaning of what’s being said, not why a sentence is worded the way it is. Linguistic is the only platform aimed at showing you the underlying structure of words, not just throwing them into Google Translate.
- Hands-off proficiency tracking. Never under-, or over-, estimate your proficiency again. No need for placement tests, needless quizzes, or questionnaires. Linguistic is the only language exchange that tells you how you stack up solely by observing your behavior.
After three years of rewrites, beta testing, and improvements, we are only just getting started. In the near future we’re slotted to introduced voice messaging with automatic transcription, improved onboard and gamification features, and a built-in vocabulary review system.
Currently the system only supports learners and speakers of Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English with new languages coming in the near future. We chose these languages due to their prevalence in the Bay Area, where we’re based, and so we could test our platform on occidental languages as well as east Asian languages. We also recently launched inside the PRC as https://www.linghuayun.cn to encourage native Chinese speakers to join the platform.
I’m extremely proud of the work our distributed team of engineers has done over the past several months (shout out to Casey, Erik, Sai, Akash, and Charlie).