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Learning with Babbel: Interview with Miriam Plieninger

Posted on November 23, 2010 by

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Miriam Plieninger

Miriam Plieninger is the Head of Content Production at Babbel. Over the years she’s edited courses and taught languages in classrooms in Germany and the UK. German is her mother tongue, but she also speaks English, French, Norwegian and Latin, not to mention the languages she’s learned at Babbel: Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese and — as she tells Babbel Blog in the interview — Italian. Here she talks about the “communicative approach” for teaching beginners new languages and how it allows for quick progress.

Miriam, do you use Babbel for learning yourself?

Actually, I do every day, because I edit the courses.

Of course , though, I work on them before they are done. It takes a few weeks until a lesson is finished, but by then I’m already working on the next lessons. So to see what the courses feel like when they come to life, I sometimes go back to earlier lessons and have another look at them with all the pictures, sounds and interactivity, and I work through them myself.

Sooner or later you’ll be able to speak all the Babbel languages!

(Laughs) Some of them were new to me, Italian for example, and now I know it on a beginner level. I think it’s a good thing to never lose the beginner’s  perspective. That way I know what a beginner course has to look like. I see what’s difficult, I can say “stop, that’s too much for one lesson, we have to put that into two or three lessons.” And I know what being a beginner feels like. I had a nice situation a few weeks ago, I worked on the Italian beginner course before and I went to Sardinia for holiday. That was the first time I really spoke Italian to Italian people. Just basic sentences, but I was so proud because I could make myself understood. Not only with the sentences from the course, but I could also combine stuff.

So though unintentionally, you did learn some Italian?

Seems like I am an auditive learning type. I always have the Babbel speakers in mind. That’s sometimes not such a great thing… I mean, you don’t want to be dreaming  about  recording people and have their voices in your head. But on a holiday this can come in really handy. I went to a bar, heard my speakers’ recording of the word for “I want something” and “a drink” and I was able to combine.

My masterpiece was ordering vegetarian food when there was no vegetarian food. I managed to ask the waiter if I could have two side dishes instead of having the meat course. I got what I wanted. I was so proud. My beginner course worked out as planned.

Did you understand what the waiters were answering?

Most of it. I think that’s also an important thing to learn, that you don’t have to understand each and every thing. You can understand just three quarters of a sentence and know what the sentence is about. I also keep that in mind for the dialogues and courses. The main words, the most important chunks and phrases are introduced at the beginning. But then there are always little words, like prepositions, which you don’t learn explicitly. You understand them from the context.

And if I don’t?

In real life you look them up in a dictionary. At Babbel we never leave the learners alone. There are always translations on all the beginner levels and in all the vocabulary and sentence trainers. You’ll never have to go to your bookshelf and take the huge dictionary to look up stuff.

Speaking of huge dictionaries, how many words do I have to learn to get along in a foreign language?

In general  you need around 2000,  3000 words for basic communication.

That sounds like a lot of work.

But obviously there are a lot of fillers, lots of prepositions, lots of these small words. With the communicative approach that we take at Babbel, you don’t need to learn those explicitly in vocabulary lists. You’ll just know them after a while.

Communicative approach?

In more old-school approaches to didactics you used to learn a thousand single words and then you would have to learn how to combine them. It took a while before you were even able to formulate a four-word sentence.

With the communicative approach you learn chunks and short sentences, useful ones, very very quickly. This way, after the first ten minutes with the first tutorial of a beginner course, you make basic smalltalk, you can say hello, goodbye, how are you and I’m fine. After maybe an hour you can already tell people where you’re from, which languages you speak, order a beer and so on.

But I still have to memorize chunks and sentences. How does it differ from old style vocabulary learning?

In context and linking. If a word or chunk is linked to a picture in your mind, it is much easier to remember. Memorizing things works best when your brain can link them to other things. That’s why in all our lessons, tutorials, vocabulary trainers, sentence trainers, we always try to offer “connected material” for different learning types. Images, sounds, typing and word order exercises. And good example sentences are really important to us.
For each and every of the 3000 words in the basic and advanced vocabulary trainers we have one example sentence. So you learn ten or twenty words for one word field actively, but you learn a lot more words around that because of the example sentences.

What is a good example sentence?

A good example sentence explains the word you learn. Let’s take the word “airport”. A bad example sentence would be “I live near the airport”, because you could live near anything and anywhere. A better sentence would be “I pick up my friend from the airport, his plane lands at two”.  You need context, more words from a field, to get a picture in your mind. The sentences should also be somehow interesting. If they are fun, emotional and close-to-life, the picture will stick in your mind.

Some of our sentences are outright funny. For example I remember one from a vocabulary trainer about parts of the body, which was something like: “His nose is so big, he can smoke a cigar in the shower”. I read that out loud to the people sitting in the room and everyone just busted out laughing. But for sure, everyone will remember the word from now on.

That’s what I like about self-directed learning, that I can just learn the stuff which is fun to learn.

… and the more fun you have, the easier will it be to learn. Another important point of autonomous learning is that you can do it at your own  pace. We have those really small portions, you just need 10 to 15 minutes to work on one lesson. If you want to go on, you can go on, if you want to have a break, you have a break. Nobody will nag you to go on or tell you that you’re lazy or something. You can learn when you want, as long as you want.

… and what you want.

Well, to really early beginners I recommend starting with the beginner course. There they are taken by the hand, they’ll find everything they need to know. Pronunciation, grammar and communicative situations, it’s all connected. Then after the beginner course, they’re really free to choose from anything. They can choose topics of interests, they can go and take grammar lessons, they can add more words to certain word fields.
Or if they know that there’s a specific situation where they need their foreign language soon, we have those sentence trainers of a thousand useful sentences. For example you want to cook with friends and want to know what the food is called in their language, then you could just go into these sentence trainers and pick out a few really authentic phrases and practice them. With our speech recognition you can also check if your native speaker friends would understand your pronunciation.

How do you choose your topics and content?

Most of the time I’m sticking to the European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF) by the Council of Europe. This framework provides so-called “Can Do” descriptions for different communicative skills on reference levels from A1, basic, to C2, proficient.

So for example, what can I do on an A1 level?

You can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases “aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type”. You can introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have. You can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.

Is that CEF the framework that schools [in Europe] are using for reference?

Yes, schools try to make their students have a B1/B2 level after their degree, but to be honest most people have more of an A2 level. And especially after a few years of not using the language A2 is a very common level to be on.

You have a lesson about time machines and flying carpets. Does the CEF mention that?

Well, there is no “I can talk about teleportation”. But isn’t that a very concrete type of need? (Laughs.)

Our vocabulary, sentence and grammar trainers aren’t linked to the framework levels. They just float on top of everything. Every learner of every language level can learn basic and advanced words, which we don’t limit to the CEF. If you say you have a basic vocabulary that has to do with fantasy or backpacking or sex, that’s not an A1 thing to learn. But it’s a basic set of words for a language situation in which you might find yourself in real life. I think that’s what makes language learning fun. It needs to be close to your real life. You might not be teleported, but it’s useful to be able to talk about fantasy – and what’s possible or not.

That’s the second time you mentioned that G-word. Grammar.

Personally I think that most people who think they need grammar, don’t really need to learn grammar. But they do need to use the foreign language actively: listen, read, write and speak. We do have grammar tutorials for those learners anyway, because it just gives them more confidence if they refresh the rules and use the rules in context sentences. But what’s really important is to practice the communicative situations in the course.
We try to make Babbel as easy as possible to work through for people who don’t have a university degree in philology. Babbel is not just for linguists, it’s for everyone.

Miriam, thank you for your time.

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Tech Background: Babbel Speech Recognition

Posted on June 28, 2010 by

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Interview with Technical Director Thomas Holl


Speech recognition is the exciting new feature at  Babbel. It’s not only fun – it’s also amazingly efficient for learning a new language. But how does it work? I got the low down from our Technical Director Thomas.

Crisi: What does the new speech recognition tool do?

Thomas: Basically, we use pronunciation samples recorded by our native speaking course editors and compare your pronunciation to theirs. As always with Babbel, you get instant feedback. The closer your pronunciation is to this example, the more points you get on a scale from 0 to 100. If you get more than 50 points, you’re good enough to be generally understood.

Crisi: But if you just compare two sounds, is that really speech recognition?

Thomas: Sure, we recognize what you say. We’re now sitting in front of the screen and we are talking but you see that the score is 0 all the time. Now, try saying arrivederci.

Crisi: Arrivederci

Thomas: Nice, 78 points.  Better than Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds” (see details here). Remember the hilarious scene where Brad Pitt is trying to speak Italian? We ran his pronunciation through our analysis and as you might expect he scored pretty low. But I’m digressing, sorry. Back to our little test. Your pronunciation is about 78% exact compared to our reference sample. That’s pretty good.

Crisi: Still, it’s only about comparing sounds, not about understanding what I say.

Thomas: Well, there are different sub-types of speech recognition. One is speech-to-text or voice control. That’s what you’d use to enter text or commands if you can’t use a keyboard. Recognizing words and evaluating their pronunciation is another sub-type, and that’s the technology that makes sense for language learning. We can use it for pronunciation training and for building new interactive exercises.

Crisi: So, what’s the technical challenge in this sub-type of speech recognition?

Thomas: Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds – no pun intended. It’s actually not enough to just compare two sounds. It’s a little like telling how similar two people look in two different photos. The audio samples are usually pretty different: a woman has a higher voice than a man and the tempo of speech also differs a lot. And then you have a number of artifacts…

Crisi: Artifacts?

Thomas: Noises and characteristics that are caused by the environment or the technical setup: rumbling, hissing, other sounds mixing into the voice. Most people don’t have a high-end microphone connected to their computer and in our case we just use the built-in mic on my laptop. The audio quality of what the system is hearing is pretty poor.

Crisi: So to make the speech recognition work properly, our users need to have a good mic and be in a quiet room?

Thomas: No, that’s the point: we can also work with cheap microphones and filter out noise in the immediate environment. That’s part of the challenge.

Crisi: Sounds like a lot of filtering and levelling…

Thomas: Yes, that also, but there’s more: We have to distil the “core” of the voice sample and then match that to the original. To do that, the system needs to figure out when you start and stop speaking. You don’t have to press any key to start and stop recording; we do the matching in real-time.

Crisi: So everything we say into the system here is somehow analyzed?

Thomas: Right. Just look at the level: every sound input is analyzed and matched to the sound we’re looking for. In this case, arrivederci.

Crisi: 55 points

Thomas: Ok, yours is better than mine. But you see that the word was recognized among all the other things we said.

Crisi: Is this unique technology? Are there other software product that do this?

Thomas: There are a number of software products that do have speech recognition. Some of them also are of decent quality.

Crisi: So what’s so special about the Babbel speech recognition?

Thomas: Well, it’s online and works in your browser.

Crisi: Does this mean that everything we say here is sent to the Babbel servers and analyzed there?

Thomas: No, the whole audio processing is done instantly, directly in the browser. We don’t have to send the audio to the server and that’s why we can give instant feedback.

Crisi: Do I have to install a plugin or something?

Thomas: You don’t. It’s all done in Flash. 97% of all browsers have the Flash plugin pre-installed. As we use the latest version, you might have to do an update, but that’s very quick. Other than that, you just need a microphone like the one that’s built into my laptop.

Crisi: Babbel has been online since January 2008. Why did it take so long to add this feature?

Thomas: We needed the new Flash Player 10.1 because before that it wasn’t possible to do audio processing locally. It would have been necessary to either send all the audio to the server for analyses or to use a custom browser plugin.

Crisi: What’s wrong with a custom browser plugin?

Thomas: First of all, you have to install new software on your computer. And then you have compatibility issues. There are some rare solutions that offer real-time speech recognition in a browser plugin, but most of them won’t work on your Mac and none of them are compatible with all browsers. Flash is already there, the plugin works fine and it’s available for all platforms.

Crisi: How about the iPhone? You can’t use Flash technology on that platform, can you?

Thomas: No, but the Babbel iPhone apps work natively on the iPhone anyway.

Crisi: Natively?

Thomas: The Babbel apps are built specifically for the iPhone and don’t need a browser or plugin to work. That’s called a “native” application. We can build our algorithm directly into the app.

Crisi: That’s not related to Native Instruments, the software company you used to work for?

Thomas: (laughs): No, not directly. But for being an audio software company, Native Instruments definitely is a great name because the software works natively on the computer.

Crisi: I guess we don’t have to understand that completely. But speaking of audio software: has your audio expertise (along with that of the other Babbel founders) been crucial for this new feature or is it something entirely different than building DJ tools?

Both. Of course working on beat detection and time stretching for music and building a speech recognition tool are two different things. On the other hand, we couldn’t have done this in-house without our background.

Crisi: So who actually implemented the new feature?

Thomas: Most of it was done by Toine Diepstraten, one of the Babbel founders. He and I started working together on audio software in our first company, d-lusion, more than 10 years ago. Toine is one of the best developers and audio specialists I’ve ever met. It’s fantastic to have him on board for this project. He did have to do quite some research but without his expertise, this would never have been possible. But this way we have state-of-the art technology that can compare with any other implementation.

Crisi: You sound very convinced

Thomas: From a technical point of view, this is a great piece of software. We actually got some recognition from Adobe, the makers of the Flash Player. They were pretty impressed by our solution.

Crisi: Will this be a focus for Babbel from now on, or do you plan to work on other types of features?

Thomas: It is a very important feature because now we can do everything online that traditional e-learning software can do locally. And we don’t need installation or updates and we have a very lively online community that goes together with the self-directed learning…

Crisi: But?

Thomas: It’s important but it’s not the end. We’ll keep working and adding new features.

Crisi: Can you say what’s next for Babbel?

Thomas: Sorry, but for that we’ll have to turn off the mic.

Crisi: No problem.

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The Internet Speaks English

Posted on March 17, 2009 by

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According to Internet World Stats, with 28.7%,the majority of people online are English speakers. Spanish speaking users come in at a far third with 7.7%, and French speakers fourth with only 4.6%. German is in seventh place with 4.1%.The English-language-dominated world of micro-blogging alone currently has about six million users worldwide, but only a very small fraction of these write in any language other than English. Students young and old understand that to keep up with this dynamic sector, English is invaluable. is the place to start for those who want to try their hand at twittering, blogging, chatting, shopping or emailing in English.For example, we’ve just released an online tutorial „Talking about Computers and the Internet“, which provides all the most important terms and phrases to participate anywhere online. Audio, visual and participatory functions make the exercise interactive. We also included a part where students can write their own text on the theme, which is then corrected by a friend or someone else from the 230,000 strong Babbel community.

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Change Comes to the Babbel Blog

Posted on March 3, 2009 by

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In these days the Babbel Blog will be going through some changes, and our readers will notice a shift in the content. The focus will now be more on the Babbel online language learning platform itself. You will find ideas and tidbits from Babbel’s creators, news about — and stories from — Babbel users, and articles and interviews on internet-based elearning in general, among other things.

We have to say goodbye and thanks to Mara and Lorenz, the two blog editors. Thanks for the great work, journalistic quality and dedication you put into this project!

Mara and Lorenz’s interviews and articles will however still be available here. If you read German, you can follow some of Lorenz’s work at his blog on education gaming, and Mara will be overseeing English language content at Babbel and also on this blog.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts!!

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“Cell phone learning can make a difference” – Matthew Kam on a game-based approach for English learning in India

Posted on February 27, 2009 by

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mobgame1Matthew Kam, an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, speaks about his recent doctoral dissertation research in Indian communities and designing E-Learning games for children from other cultural backgrounds. His MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project was funded by the National Science Foundation and has won several awards, including one from the MacArthur Foundation.

Babbel Blog: Why do you think E-Learning games on cell phones can provide a learning benefit?

MK: The case for games for education has been made from two very different angles. One would be the theoretical angle, the other the empirical angle. From the theoretical point of view, educational researchers like James Paul Gee argued that games could incorporate very good educational principles. There have been studies on the empirical level which support this claim. The most useful study that we found was done by a team of MIT economists who studied a group of children from the urban slums in India – more than 10,000 slum children were involved in that experiment carried out over more than two years. They found that kids playing mathematical E-Learning games two times per week improved their scores on math tests. That was by far the strongest evidence so far that games have an impact for education. We thought, when mathematical games can make a difference, you should be able to achieve the same kind of benefits with language-learning games too. That is the whole motivation behind our game-based approach.

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Let the machine guide you: Touring with your ears

Posted on February 17, 2009 by

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wheretoTo know the world,  just listen to it – these words from writer Amin Maalouf are the motto of Zevisit.  The website offers free audio guides to a number of destinations, mostly in France, but also to other places around the world, such as tours to Istanbul or the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The number of available guides depends on the language you use. Most are in French, though many can be found in English and there are a few in Spanish and German. Besides using the Google Maps to visualize the tours, you can download information to Google Earth, browse a Wiki or watch some video guides (via Fremdsprachen und Neue Medien).

When visiting these places, a translator could definitely come in handy. There is a new iPhone app which could have been a wonderful solution, but it comes with a catch: The iSpeak application ($2 for each language) offers translation from English to Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, Swedish and vise versa – you type in a sentence, and it translates it and “speaks” the translation out for you. The only problem is that iSpeak relies on the Google translation engine – meaning you have to be connected to the internet. Which you may not be as a tourist without a contract with a local provider (or without wireless/WLAN, near the Victoria Falls for example).

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Magic, “mumblecore”, and not exactly talkin’ bout my generation: Interview at the Berlinale with Andrew Bujalski

Posted on February 11, 2009 by

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One film the Babbel Bloggers caught during the Berlinale (February 5-15) was “Beeswax”. This is American auteur Andrew Bujalski’s third feature, which premiered on Monday, Feb. 9th. His genre, if it can even be classified as such, has been coined as “mumblecore”. But as a talk with him made clear, in his work and in the film world in general, often the last thing words do is clarify. You can still catch a screening of Beeswax in Berlin tonight or on Friday.

Babbel Blog: When I saw “Beeswax”, I was thinking about how I could connect it with issues of language. One thing that stood out to me in the movie was how you have this divide – or conflict – between personal and business language. “Are we business partners or friends?” “Am I your boyfriend or your lawyer?” That sort of thing.

Andrew Bujalski: Whenever I have to sign contracts it always produces a great anxiety in me, because I read the language of the document and it’s never language that I’ve written, or language I would necessarily subscribe to, though you’re not given the option to line-edit every contract you sign. But what’s frightening about them is that they are written in a language which doesn’t resemble the personal language you would use to suss out if you and someone you’re working with are working toward the same goal.

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Library to go: Google books go cellular

Posted on February 6, 2009 by

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mobil_oldWhile I have long since forgone interactions in the physical world in favor of their counterparts/improvements online — listening to the radio, going to the videodrome, banking, learning German, just to give a few examples — one thing I can’t bring myself to throw into the dustbin of materiality is a good book.

But also as a bibliophile who’s packed up and crossed oceans for good more than once, I can attest to one of books’ major detriments: weight. So my interest was piqued to hear yesterday that Google has just made 1.5 million ebooks from Google Book Search available on mobile devices.

Now, as of now these are only books in the public domain, meaning pretty old stuff; I can’t say that I often have the urge on a train ride to work to peruse say, Beowulf. Also the transfer of older scanned books to text for easier reading on a cellphone can often result in a bit of a verbal mishmash, as the LA Times notes.  But it seems that is also on the case. They announced simultaneously that they are now working on making contemporary and out-of-print titles that are already digitized for the Kindle e-reader for access on mobile phones as well.

In the meanwhile,  for those too impatient to wait to read the latest airport novel without all the fuss of pages, Amazon is scheduled to unveil the latest version of Kindle on Monday.

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Inside Curiosity is Key

Posted on January 15, 2009 by

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The Babbel Blog team took a short trip on the UBahn over to the Berlin office of, the interactive language-learning platform, to speak with Ulrike Kerbstadt (right) and Sylvie Roche (left). They are Just two of the folks responsible for the learning content at the website. Click here to listen to the interview that is part one in a series taking a gander “Inside Babbel”.

Babbel Blog: What do you do at Babbel?

Ulrike Kerbstadt: I’m responsible for language learning content. I develop the material with a team of native speakers and have the didactic background.

Sylvie Roche: I’m content editor and work with the same team developing other kinds of content.

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Babbel investor Kizoo: “In business, at the end of the day, you have to trust each other”

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Babbel Blog’s Interview with Frank Schüler und Matthias Hornberger of Kizoo, a Babbel investor. Schüler is Kizoo’s president and was managing director of subsidiaries of; Hornberger is Kizoo’s CFO and responsible for Finance, Controlling, Investor Relations & Corporate Affairs. (For the original German version click here

When did you first hear about the “internet”?

Frank Schüler:

In business terms it was around 1995. We probably all figured out what roll the internet was going to play at the university. For me personally, in ’91 and ’92, it was a communication tool between universities. I myself was in New York then, and at the time the internet was already an important communication tool with people back home.

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