Inside Babbel.com: Curiosity is Key
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.
BB: What is Babbel, what does Babbel do?
UK: On the one hand, you vocabulary packages, you can learn a set of words for a special topic, we also have writing tasks where you can interact with other people, communicate with the community in real-life situations and we have what we call interactive tutorials.
SR: On the other hand we have the community platform where you can learn for yourself but of course with other people. Other people are going to correct you. You can ask any question about translation or what you will find in a country when you go on vacation…
UK: Yeah, that’s the other specialty we have… we have this huge community of native speakers where you always get real feedback, you have real-life situations and that’s really motivating for our users.
SR: For example we have the writing exercises, and concretely, we ask you a question, you have a small video or some pictures, and you can write something about it. You send it to someone you don’t know, to the community, then the community or special people you have chosen answer to you. Sometimes it develops some internet friendships, and people are going to write more to each other. And we see that that really happens.
UK: We also have other features like the chat or direct messaging, or the board, where you get a lot of user feedback, comments and so on. Many opportunities to communicate.
BB: Where did the idea for these features come from, what’s the philosophy behind them?
UK: We think that curiosity is the key to language learning, and with an internet platform like this we can really keep that curiosity alive, put people into real situations where it’s necessary to communicate. So they’re motivated, there aren’t inhibitions to use the language, even at an early stage, at a low level. Because every user is a language learner, everyone who teaches you something or corrects you also learns a language, and that really makes it easier for you.
SR: An important thing is, we’re teaching European languages, but many of our users don’t come from Europe — but they are still native speakers. For example, we have Spanish speakers who come from Mexico, so if you write something in Spanish because you’re learning Spanish, you will send it to a Spanish speaker, but you might send it to a Venezuelan or a Mexican, and people will tell you, well, in my country, people might rather say this or that.
UK: You get to know people from Algeria, Morocco, you learn so much about different cultures… there are so many topics to talk about.
BB: Could you give us a favorite example of a writing exercise?
UK: I quite like the exercise about “A Holiday in the Desert” — You have to make up something, describe an extreme holiday. And you have pictures that go with it… most of the time these pictures really stir up emotions or are really funny, that’s really motivating to write something.
SR: Actually I really like the one – though most of the users didn’t do it – where Jenny was worried about her rabbit, and John had cooked rabbit for dinner, and what happened to the rabbit? She went away… was she right or wrong to do that, and why? And lots of people didn’t do that … There was one that was quite popular, What do you do in your free time? Most of the people wrote very simple phrases, but we had a lot of answers. For example, on the weekend I like to play basketball and have a walk with my dog. And then other people say, that’s funny, I have a dog too, what’s your dog? So it’s not only about the language. Of course, people correct each other, but it’s about communication, interaction.
BB: So imagine you’re creating a new tutorial from scratch. How do you start it?
UK: At the beginning we sketch everything out, we have a little draft of the content, then our technicians here have made a very nice tool, the Tutorial Builder, and it works a bit like power point. You have all these different components, and can put together pictures with dialogue etc., or make a multiple choice task, and you decide if you want speakers with the text or do you want the text to be in the mother tongue or in the foreign language, also design things…
BB: The way you lay out material, does that come from books?
UK: Well, there’s the European Reference Frame, which gives advice as to what kind of learner needs what kind of knowledge at whatever stage, and we follow that.
BB: What is that exactly, the European Reference Frame?
UK: It’s for all language learners in whatever language you might be studying, there are special communicative situations where you have to get around — for example as a beginner you don’t have to be able to write a letter but yes take a note. Of course we also have a look at material in books etc.
BB: Have either of you worked as teachers before?
UK: I taught German as a foreign language here in Berlin, and of course there it’s a completely different situation in front of a class. Here what we develop is self-learning material. It’s important to keep people motivated – have a learning effect behind the fun. But here it’s much more the fun factor. That’s out priority.
SR: I was in international schools my whole school time, learned French and German, but moreover film, media in the university. So I learned how to learn, and what’s the problems are in learning, what can stop your curiosity. So I think I make a good team with Ulrike, because she knows how to teach things, and I’m more knowledgeable about breaks that can occur in learning. So together maybe I’m more the “fun” part. And she’s maybe more serious – well, she has the more serious background. Together we work well.
BB: How many languages do you speak?
SR: Well, French is my mother tongue but I speak five other languages…
UK: I learned translation from English and French (to German), but also a bit of Spanish and Portuguese.
SR: I think what’s also important to us is – as you said – to learn only things you can apply in every day life. What’s important is what you learn and not something that’s in a book that’s very correct but that you’ll never use because no one ever says it.
UK: Yeah we take care that the material is funny, the pictures are funny — I think we have a lot of fun developing the material, we have a good laugh together!
BB: Where do you think Babbel is going? Where do you see it in 2010?
SR: This year we tested a lot, Babbel grew. Before we were only five, and now we’re twelve with a lot of freelancers. I think what we tested is that the community is very important and still very important. .. this fun factor is very important and we will keep on doing that. With users uploading their own pictures so they’re involved, but also – content that is really serious and … “Babbel approved”. You can really go away, shut your computer down and say, I learned something and in a week I’ll remember it. It’s really a serious matter too.
UK: And maybe we’re going to have more user-generated content someday. That people build their own exercises and put them online, then you have a picture from the person and other users can vote if it’s a good tutorial or a bad one. Everyone can build material like us. Everyone can play teacher.
SR: As I said before, we have people from the community who come from all over the world, and the fact that you go to another country and learn how you speak there in that country… if it’s user-generated content then they will say, well if you come to my country and order something in a restaurant, you have to say these kinds of words
UK: You could learn for example Scottish English… Australian, etc…
BB: Are there other languages coming?
UK: Yes, we were thinking about Turkish, Portuguese, and Chinese and Arabic we would love too, but that might be complicated with another alphabet…