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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
Thomas: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…
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.
After we released the new speech recognition feature yesterday and had all the good feeedback, we got into what you might call a funny mood. We ended up testing some celebrities with our new feature.
It was loads of fun running Brad Pitt’s pronunciation through the tool to see what score he would have gotten for his Americanized Italian in Tarantino’s movie “Inglorious Basterds”. His buongiorno and arrivederci are understandable, but you have to admit the pronunciation is far from perfect! According to our new tool that evaluates pronunciation quality, Lt. Aldo Raine scores a 53 for his buongiorno and a 57 for the famous arrivederci. A little practice could have probably helped…
You can try your own results in any of seven languages on Babbel.com. To practice Italian greetings, just select the beginner’s course. First step is free after a simple registration.
“Free” is the most important keyword on the World Wide Web. It implies “free of charge”. Babbel has been “free” in this sense for almost two years. More than 500,000 users have registered for the platform. Now, with the release of Babbel 2.0, we start charging. Why? Might this seem unfair? Shouldn’t the internet – and education in general – be free for all? So many other sites seem to show that this model works.
Our plan, in fact, was to partially finance Babbel with advertising. We intended to provide a “freemium” product that would have a basic version that was public, while providing additional premium content for those who might want to dig deeper. But now we see this just doesn’t work. It simply is not possible to build a high-quality online learning environment while simultaneously selling ad space effectively.We tried to bring these two objectives together. But ultimately we had to accept that a business model appropriate for social networks and news services is plain wrong when applied to online education.
Babbel is now one of the first online services to decisively abandon this antiquatedidea of “free”. We certainly still want to make the world – or at least the internet – a better place, but we no longer think that we can do so using online advertising. In this (admittedly epic) blog postI’d like to give some background about our decision and some words on some related, internet-wide changes.
Free as in “Free Sharing” or as in “Freebie”?
The internet does provide a number of highly valuable things for free. Software such as the Linux operating system or the Mozilla browser belongsto this category, as well as some online encyclopedias and communities. It’s wonderful how many useful things you can find onlinethat are absolutely free. This is thanks to a combination of internet technology, on the one hand, and the selfless dedication and idealism of a great number of people all over the planet on the other.
But beyond these truly free services, there are a great number of websites, as well as search engines, freemail, and a good portion of online dictionaries and social networks, that are sponsored by ads. In contrast to Open Source software and Creative Commons, where developers and authors often work for free, ad-sponsored services are designed to make money – and they do.
What’s Wrong with Ads?
Of course, making money is not necessarily a bad thing. But ads can have drawbacks for users of these sites, some of which are obvious and some of which are not so apparent.
The most striking downside of advertising is the ads themselves. They have to attract attention, so they are flashy. They are constantly evolving to keep us from becoming immune to them. The objective is consistently to draw our attention away from other things like news or blog posts and to make us read, click and interact with more ad content and, ultimately, buy a product. Advertising’s main strategy is interruption. And interruption is what we at Babbel are trying to avoid.
Yet another aspect of online ads is that they don’t have to get everybody’s attention. They can focus on a specific target group. So besides making ads more attractive, promoters and engineers are working to “target” them to those who are most likely to respond (i.e. to buy). To do this, user data has to be collected, processed, and analyzed. This data analysis doesn’t harm people per se, but more and more internet users want to protect their privacy andare justifiably feeling uneasy about it. I must admit I feel a bit uneasy myself when I see how much it is possible to know about the users of your website when their personal data is what you’re after.
But there is another, more insidious, drawback of ad-sponsoring that is less visible to the naked eye: the true customers of these ad-sponsored services are not the users but rather the advertisers. And as everywhere else, the Customer is King. This means that these services are not optimized for the best use-value but for the best click-rates and advertising revenue. Of course, users need to be brought back to the website somehow in order to see the ads and to click on them… but that is just a means to another end.
These downsides of ad-sponsoring are especially problematic in a learning application. If we want to build a new kind of learning environment that really works, we simply cannot let the learner’s attention consistently get drawn away. We don’t want to spend our engineering resources on ad targetting, but rather on improving the Refresher and Recommendation systems. Most of all, we need our customer to be the learner.
Our idea is to create a new kind of online learning system that adjusts itself to the needs of the learner and makes it easy to comprehend new subject matter without too much effort. This has yet to be done successfully, and we have no real role model we can emulate or by whom we can “be inspired”. It’s pioneering work, and it requires expertise to be constantly rethought and redone.
To significantly improve our service and to approach that user-centered learning environment we’re dreaming of, we’ve put together an extensive team of professionals from different disciplines. Software developers and internet specialists work side by side with more than 20 teachers and language experts. Simultaneously, we are striving to make this complex application easy to use and more or less imperceptible behind the content.
So yes, Babbel 2.0 is commercial. This means that we want to – and have to – make a living from of it. We’ve got some financing and loans, but ultimately, wehave to pay our own bills. And it seems that advertising is the wrong way to do this.
Because we deliver Babbel over the internet and don’t have so many variable costs per user, we can keep the price relatively low. Instead of charging more than a hundred Euros per product, as many learning software companies do, Babbel goes for a price of €4.95 to €8.95 per month. That’s affordable for anyone who wants to learn a new language. Also, we make it a point to have fair conditions. There are no hidden costs or implicit commitments. Users can cancel their membership at any time without any unpleasant surprises.
Internet Beyond the Advertising Industry: Will this be Web 3.0?
It’s clear that we are breaking a taboo. Many internet users think that all online services should be free. A lot of them will be angered by our change in strategy. But we’re convinced this will be the best way. As a matter of fact, we think it brings with it a lot of exciting opportunities.
As the internet plays an increasingly important role in all our lives, unreliable quality becomes more and more of an issue. If we use the internet for our basic everyday needs, we can’t afford to waste time comparing and verifying information and stitching together our own services. We need quality delivered steadily and without distraction. Again, this is especially true for online education.
This is why paid services have a great future. The demand for high-quality services and providers who don’t monetize user data is rising. After the huge wave of ad-sponsored “Web 2.0″ websites, these new business models might be the core of what could be “Web 3.0.”
Paid services are particularly advantageous for small providers and start-ups because you don’t need to reach a “critical mass”. You can survive on the subscriptions of your customers, even if you have a comparably small niche market. That’s why this potential Web 3.0 could be more diverse – and less monopolistic – than what we see now. Babbel 2.0 is one step in that direction. We hope that many users take that step with us.
The Babbel Blog team took a short trip on the UBahn over to the Berlin office of Babbel.com, 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. (more…)