Two years ago we broke new ground with the release of Babbel 2.0. This was a significant step forward. Instead of Babbel being a platform almost entirely financed by advertisements (with some additional products on the side) we decided to create a high-quality learning portal that would be financed solely through user subscription fees. You can read more on the reasoning and thought behind that decision in my blogpost of November 2009.
The orientation of a product is always determined by those who pay for it. We wanted Babbel’s orientation to be determined by language learners themselves. This ultimately led us to conclude that the transformation of Babbel into a fee-based portal was a necessary step. Nevertheless, we realised what a radical decision this was.
Babbel is very reasonably priced when compared to traditional e-learning products like CD-ROMs (our business model was initially questioned for being “too cheap”). But we benefit from the advantage of not having to press CDs and ship them around the world. While you have to fork out between 80 and 500 euros for most mail-order products, with Babbel language learning costs only a few euros each month. Despite this,
In November 2009 Babbel had 500,000 registered users. Today the number of people using Babbel, both online and on smartphones, rose to over 3 million. This proves that many people are willing to pay for high quality courses, even if they are online-based. In the past six months alone, our customer base has more than doubled. The numbers speak for themselves. Some of our users are so motivated that they take an active part in Babbel’s development by acting as beta testers. They continue to inspire us with their feedback and I would like to take this opportunity to thank these users for their dedication. You contribute greatly to the success of Babbel and to the ongoing growth of the team and its products!
In the meantime, six new learning languages and two new interface languages have been added to Babbel. That means 20 possible language learning combinations have turned into 70! In addition to just studying vocabulary, you can now choose from a broad range of integrated courses: from the beginner’s course for those with no prior knowledge, to the more challenging refresher and grammar courses; from idioms and tongue-twisters to numbers and “Denglish”. With new music courses coming up, and many others in development – that’s hundreds of courses in various formats covering a wide range of topics.
In the technical field, Babbel has also made giant leaps forward. We’ve developed and introduced, for example, a real-time browser-based speech recognition tool that doesn’t need to be installed and that helps you perfect your pronunciation. With the introduction of eleven iPhone apps (downloaded by over 1.5 million users!), you are now able to learn and practise vocabulary on the go.
2011 has been the first year since Babbel was founded that we have been able to pay salaries solely from our earnings. In other words, our company is now stable and can continue to grow self-sufficiently.
Our new office in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin is now home to 30 permanent employees – three times as many as there were only a year ago – and that’s not counting our pool of over 60 freelancers. That makes a total of almost 100 people working on content development, translation, technical development, and support. (We are, by the way, still looking for specialised staff in several departments. Read more!)
We count ourselves lucky in that we have forged a team of exceptionally motivated and gifted people. This makes working at Babbel fun, which, of course, has a direct impact on the product itself.
We now have a development team working specifically with mobile apps. At present, they are working on new apps for Android and iPad. These are all due for release later this year with more mobile offers to follow next year.
A highly-skilled specialist from Norway is now working on further improvements to Babbel’s speech recognition tool and on ways of implementing more voice-controlled exercises. Furthermore, specialists from AI research, cognitive science, and the many linguists and teaching experts who surround me are all using their knowledge to develop even more new features and content. These include new course formats that cater to the requirements of specific career profiles, changes to the platform itself and, last but not least, completely innovative approaches that will change the learning experience with Babbel profoundly.
We really do have a lot in mind for the future – so everybody stay tuned!
Read this post in German (Deutsch)
The ticket collectors and guards on German trains are notorious for their English pronunciation so we decided to produce a course for them: “Train English”. We offered this for free. One of the big German rail companies was interested at first, but then decided that their staff didn’t need any help after all..!
Read more in the German blogpost if you do speak some German, a complete English post is coming up soon!
Mit Verspätung rollt ein Zug in den Bahnhof ein, und der Zugbegleiter greift zu seinem Handbuch: Kapitel 123, Verabschiedung.
Schnell ist der deutsche Text aufgesagt; der englische braucht immer wieder Überwindung: „Konnektschn tu Mjunitsch on plattform sörtiin. Gudbai, änd senk ju for tschuusing …. “ – Die Fahrgäste hasten hinaus und hoffen, „13“ richtig verstanden zu haben. Englische Durchsagen in deutschen Zügen sind manchmal Anlaß für Heiterkeit, aber oft auch für Verwirrung bei internationalen Reisenden. Auch eine Aussprache-Broschüre, die ein Bahnunternehmen vor einiger Zeit herausgab, hat offenbar nicht viel gebracht.
Da müssen wir doch helfen können, dachten wir uns, und haben einen speziellen Sprachkurs für „Train English“ produziert. Den wollten wir allen Zugbegleitern schenken, damit sie ihre englische Aussprache genau so trainieren können, wie es ihr Alltag erfordert.
Zuerst zeigte sich ein großes deutsches Bahnunternehmen sehr interessiert. „Gerade die älteren Kollegen sprechen doch relativ unsicheres Englisch“, sagte ein Zugbegleiter, da seien Sprachkurse natürlich gut. Auch der Fahrgastverband Pro Bahn würde es begrüßen, „wenn die Sprachkompetenzen der deutschen Zugbegleiter durch den Babbel-Kurs steigen“, sagte Matthias Oomen, der Bundessprecher von Pro Bahn. Aber schon beim zweiten Telefonat erklärte man uns die Sinnlosigkeit unserer Bemühungen: „Sie sprechen mit dem größten deutschen Bahnunternehmen; hier sind 70% aller Mitarbeiter demotiviert!“
Also keine Kooperation.
Den Kurs gibt es trotzdem. Wenn die Bahnunternehmen ihre Beamten nicht unterstützen wollen – Babbel gibt Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe :
Alle deutschen Zugbegleiter können sich bis zum 31.12.2011 per Email an firstname.lastname@example.org wenden. Mit einer Kopie ihres gültigen Dienstausweises im Anhang erhalten sie kostenlos ihren eigenen Zugang zum Kurs „Train English“.
Funkhaus Europa hat ein schönes Interview mit Katrin aus unserem Team geführt. Hört rein! Es gibt noch mehr Infos zum Kurs “Train English” und ein paar witzige Beispiele von Original-Bahn-Durchsagen auf Denglisch.
Von Ende Mai bis Juli lief hier im Babbel-Blog unsere große Umfrage zu Annes Lerntipps. 1774 Personen haben daran teilgenommen – auf Deutsch, Englisch, Spanisch, Französisch und Italienisch.
Das Feedback war überwältigend: allein die ausgedruckten Freitext-Kommentare umfassen weit über 100 Seiten. Wir haben sie alle gelesen. Wir haben gezählt, sortiert und ausgewertet. Jetzt können wir endlich die ersten Ergebnisse zurückgeben. Sie rütteln beträchtlich am Mythos vom auditiven, visuellen oder haptisch-motorischen Lerntyp.
Die allgemeine Zustimmung zu den Lernempfehlungen ist mit durchschnittlich 75% sehr hoch. Bei zwei Tipps allerdings gehen die Meinungen deutlich auseinander:
1. Mache einen Plan und halte dich nicht daran.
2. Dein Lerntyp ändert sich ständig.
Nur 57% stimmen diesen beiden Tipps zu. 24% sind sich nicht sicher. 18% würden sie nicht weiterempfehlen.
18% der Teilnehmer machen einen Plan und halten sich daran.
Ein Plan ist notwendig. Wenn man was richtig lernen will, muss man manchmal mit sich selbst streng sein.
29% fürchten sich zu verzetteln, wenn sie zu weit vom Plan abschweifen.
Man muss sich selbst dazu mehr als gut kennen. Vielleicht müsste man am Anfang doch einen ganz konkreten Plan haben.
35% haben einen Plan, von dem sie immer wieder abschweifen.
Man sollte nie stur nach Plan vorgehen, sondern auch mal improvisieren, das macht mehr Spaß.
Ich mache einen Plan, aber normalerweise fällt er schon nach der ersten Woche in sich zusammen… Panik auf der Arbeit oder Ablenkungen zu Hause etc.
16% brauchen gar keinen Plan.
Ich finde das Wichtige ist, einfach am Ball zu bleiben, und dafür braucht man keinen Plan sondern Engagement!
47% der Teilnehmer können sich keinem bestimmten Lerntyp zuordnen.
Mein Lehrer hat auch versucht meinen Lerntyp herauszufinden… es scheint, ich habe keinen, ich bin immer anders.
Niemand ist jeden Tag in derselben Verfassung.
33% haben darüber nie nachgedacht.
Ich dachte Lerntypen sind gefestigt. Wenn nicht, umso besser. Darüber würde ich gerne mehr erfahren.
18% halten Lerntypen für gefestigt.
Ich bin schon der Meinung, dass bei einer Person ein bestimmter Lerntyp vorherrscht, auch wenn alle vorhanden sind.
Bei den Ergebnissen zum Lerntyp fallen zwei Dinge auf:
1. Von den deutschsprachigen Teilnehmern halten 23% Lerntypen für gefestigt. In den anderen Sprachen sind es nur 13 bis 16%.
2. Wenn in der Umfrage die Antwort “Ich denke schon, dass ich ein bestimmter Lerntyp bin” ausgewählt wurde, dann haben wir in einem extra Feld nachgefragt: “Was für ein Lerntyp bist du denn?” Nur 27% der darauf gegebenen Antworten beziehen sich auf ein Modell, das Lerntypen nach Sinneseindrücken (Sehen, Hören, Tasten) ordnet:
Lesen und handschriftlich festhalten
31% deuten hingegen auf einen ganz anderen Begriff von “Lerntyp”:
Ich brauch Zeit und Ruhe. Unter Zeitdruck oder Unruhe geht gar nichts!
Von allen Teilnehmern an der Umfrage bezeichnen sich also nur knapp 5% als auditive, visuelle oder haptisch-motorische Lerntypen.
Wir haben nachgefragt bei Professor Dr. Dr. Juliane House, Sprachlernforscherin der Universität Hamburg. Sie bestätigt: „Für Lerntypen gibt es keine wissenschaftlichen Beweise. Menschen und ihre Arten zu lernen können demnach nicht kategorisch zugeordnet werden. Jeder Mensch lernt individuell.” Erfolgreiches Lernen funktioniere vor allem durch die Einbeziehung möglichst vieler Sinneskanäle. Durch die Stimulation mehrerer Bereiche im Gehirn könnten Informationen besser verknüpft und gespeichert werden.
Jeder Mensch lernt individuell. Wir haben alle unsere eigenen Stärken, Schwächen, Tricks und Methoden. Wir bei Babbel bedanken uns ganz herzlich für das wunderbar vielfältige Feedback, aus dem wir wiederum sehr viel lernen. Wir geben es weiter, versprochen!
Ich höre mir an, wie es die anderen machen. Das gibt mir neue Ideen.
While gold stars might be for kids, no one grows out of appreciating a little pat on the back. So in response to demand among our dedicated users, we at Babbel have started to award certificates for completed courses.
Whether the goal is to pump up your next job application or simply to have an accolade to hang on your wall, proof in writing of what you’ve achieved can be a great incentive to keep pushing through your language study.
Icons next to the name of the course in the Course Overview let you know which ones you’ve successfully completed, and you can just click on them to download and print. They identify exactly what you’ve learned in a course, so you can demonstrate specific knowledge and level. The Beginner’s course even signifies the level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF).
The best part is that there’s no final exam required in order to be awarded a certificate—your knowledge is continually monitored through the interactive exercises. Once again Babbel distinguishes itself from traditional classroom learning: test anxiety has become a thing of the past!
Anne Matthies is head of the Babbel Support Team. Since 1997 she’s been addicted to self-directed learning, and by now she’s reached advanced levels in Italian, English, French, Russian and Chinese. Here she’s gathered together eleven tips that have proven especially helpful in her language learning experience.
Anyone can understand “I no understand”. That’s fine for communicating on a holiday abroad, but for making a business call it could be embarrassing. Know what your goals are: do you need a foreign language for travel or for your career? Is it to show off, or just for the pleasure of doing something new or thinking in a new way? Set yourself goals. Make a plan for how much time you will dedicate to the new language and what you would like to learn next.
But don’t stick to your plan!
Would you prefer to study the subjunctive or the signs of the zodiac today, even if you really don’t need to? Digress! Enjoy exploring! Fly away! Your plan is like a walking stick that you only need to lean on when your wings are tired — you only need it if you can’t think of anything else to learn. Change it as often as you like.
If you don’t have any time pressure, you should put off speaking the language until you really have the urge. Up until then, just listen. At some point it will just bubble out of you; at some point you just won’t be able to help coming out with those strange sounds too!
If a word just comes out of your mouth all by itself, it’s all your own, it belongs to you. I’ll never forget how I suddenly started speaking Chinese while I was in the bath, after months of only listening. Don’t miss out on that kind of experience!
They say there are auditory, visual and all sorts of other learners. Sometimes you’re one, sometimes you’re another. Your learning style changes with your mood. Develop a sense of what works best for you right now: Sometimes you might like to close your eyes and just listen, other times the images and letters literally jump out at you. Other times still you might want to paint, write, pronounce or sing everything. Sometimes you want to do it all at once!
Idioms and sayings are the spice in the foreign language soup. Search out sayings that particularly amuse you. For example, imagine “laid back” and “down to earth” visually. Literal translations don’t make much sense, but they do often make for a laugh! French speakers literally say “he does cold” for “it’s cold”. Laugh yourself silly; share it with your friends. It will give you a feeling for the language. It will also enrich your vocabulary and keep your spirits up.
Don’t limit your studying to preconceived notions or set situations. What do you talk about in your native language? What are you interested in? What gets you upset? Saying something in your new language will become much easier once you really want to say it.
Flashcards and an automatic review manager are great. But turn off your computer and try to remember what you’ve just learned. Build up memory support in your head. Give yourself some time for it. Sometimes a word “comes back” after a few minutes. You’ll see that when you have to recall something all on your own, it sticks in your mind in a whole different way.
If you’re always sitting in the same chair, learning the same phrase, you might be stuck when you have to reproduce it out on the street. Take your new language along with you wherever you go. Order your favourite meal at your local restaurant in the new language. When you take the train, imagine you’ve forgotten your ticket and you have to explain yourself to the conductor.
Pop songs are great for learning grammar. Search out those licks that get stuck in your head. Listen and sing along, with or without headphones, in the shower, on your bike or in your car.
So you’re learning French? Do a French day! Listen to French radio, watch French films, cook French food, read a French newspaper and search for your newest vocabulary on google.fr. Don’t worry if you only understand a fraction of what’s going on. Put sticky notes with French terms on all of the objects in your house, have conversations with yourself and boss yourself around in French.
Nothing holds you back more than premature perfectionism. Don’t be afraid to do everything wrong — just write, sing and blabber away. A new phrase will only start to belong to you when you actually use it. Whether you use it correctly at first or not doesn’t really matter. There’s an unbelievable amount to be learned from mistakes. You just have to allow yourself to make them.
If that’s hard to swallow, just remember how cute accents, incorrect grammar and phrasing mistakes are in others. Wouldn’t it be a shame if your French friend suddenly lost her accent and spoke perfect English?
Learning a new language can seem a bit masochistic at times. You forget everything so quickly! You haven’t done anything for days! You were so proud of yourself for all you learned before, but now you don’t understand a word!
That’s normal. It’s all part of the process. Don’t let it get you down! Kick, scream, moan… but don’t give up. Someday you’ll be giggling, chatting and cheering. A new language is a new world. Conquer it with pleasure.
And you? How do you learn best? What tips do you have for tackling a new language? Take part in our Learning Tips Survey… To the questionnaire
This post in:
German (Deutsch) (original)
The European Award for Technology Supported Learning (eureleA) is a prize awarded once a year for “outstanding examples of teaching and learning through digital media”. The jury had more than 70 submitted projects to choose from – and we’ve won. The eureleA prize for the “Best Technical Implementation” has gone to Babbel.
Technical implementation doesn’t just refer to technology. Emphasis was on innovation, user-friendliness and standards. The jury named Babbel as “an example for usability and applied learning”, and a prototype for how “conventional learning systems can be made more mobile, flexible and user-friendly”.
We’re especially happy to hear this, because it describes a challenge we face every day: how to be innovative and user-friendly at the same time. It’s not enough just to have new ideas, and it’s not enough to technically implement them. We’ve created Babbel for people. We think people from all over the world, from different cultures and generations should feel at home using Babbel. Someone who wants to learn a new language doesn’t want to have to read the instruction manual first.
We are proud of this prize. The eureleA 2011 is an incentive to continue making our conviction a reality: it’s easiest to learn a language when you’re having fun.
We’re proud to announce that the magazine Mac Developer, INTERNET WORLD Business and iPhone & Co. have named the Babbel App as Germany’s best in the Business to Customer category! Lufthansa and Floop made the second and third positions.
At last week’s iPhone Developer Conference in Cologne, a jury of four tech journalists was impressed by Babbel Mobile’s overall concept and user-friendliness. What particularly caught their attention was our unique speech recognition feature that encourages learners to practice their pronunciation on-the-go. The app was created in cooperation with a startup of young developers, Aspirement. It’s a perfect addition to the Babbel online learning system.
And the jury is not alone, it seems. By now 250,000 people have downloaded the app and it made it to second place in France for the favorite app in any category. 3000 words and a basic and advanced vocabulary for English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Swedish come in handy anywhere. Download the app here.
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.
Miriam, thank you for your time.
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.
Crisi: No problem.