Like many Americans, I studied Spanish in high school. For four years, I learned the obtuse conjugations of irregular verbs and practiced scripted fill-in-the-blank conversations with my other English-speaking classmates. Why then, could I not even so much as order a beer in my first trip south of the border? Well, I had never spoken to a native Spanish speaker before I set foot in that bar in Tijuana.
Enter, stage left, livemocha.com. Livemocha is a website that is harnessing social networking technology to give language learners real-time feedback and conversation practice with native speakers while sparing them the expense of immersion travel or one-on-one tutoring. In the process, livemocha.com is transforming the way we learn foreign languages from a blackboard exercise to a truly learner-driven experience.
How Livemocha Works
Livemocha begins with the premise that all language learners are also teachers of the language that is their mother tongue. A basic four course curriculum in over 30 languages is offered for free, teaching the learner basic vocabulary and sentence structure. There are also the traditional computer-scored multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and matching practice exercises one would expect from an on-line language course.
Livemocha then takes it a step further by allowing users to submit progressively difficult free-form writing and speaking samples. Once posted, your work becomes available to the entire Livemocha community. You sit back and watch your feedback roll in, often in the form of audio recorded comments from native speakers using the site to learn other languages.
In addition to posting your work, the website allows you to email your work to your web site pals, designated language partners who you can find by searching the membership database. No friends, yet? Don’t worry, Livemocha will recommend a dozen or so native speakers who have a high “teacher score” in your language and whisk your writing or speaking sample to their in-boxes. Of course there’s a chat function that allows you to talk with real-time audio and video with users who are logged in when you are. The feature also suggests conversation topics and gives you a few opening lines to begin with.
Why Livemocha Works: User-Content, User-Evaluated
Like other social networking/user-driven content hybrid sites (think Wikipedia and CouchSurfing.org) Livemocha works for two reasons:
- Users are interested and dedicated to contributing content, for free, here in the form of lesson corrections and feedback.
- Since all the content is visible to all the users — lessons, exercises, comments, etc. — it’s clear which users make for good teachers and which don’t.
Moreover, Livemocha offers a convenient shorthand. Users’ “mochapoints” and “teacher score” let others know if they are good members of the online community. Complete a lesson and your mochapoints go up. Comment on a member’s writing sample or leave a tip on a lesson and your teacher points go up. Teacher points go up even more if your “student” says they found your comments helpful. The website encourages members to keep active by awarding medals and achievements for volume and excellence in contributions.
Don’t Fire Your Language Teacher Yet
There are perhaps only two downsides to Livemocha’s user-driven approach. The first is that the Livemocha software encourages you to “friend” or partner with students whose knowledge in your native language is far too basic for your comments to be helpful to them. For example, if I know English and I want to learn French, Livemocha might suggest French partners who are just getting started in English. I can only imagine that my comments on their English—in English!—must sound like just as much gibberish as their French is to me. A better approach would be for the software to find partners that have a third language in common. If my French partner and I also speak Spanish fairly well, we can use that to make sense to each other, at least at first.
A second failing of the website is that although high-quality premium content is available for a fee, the quality of the free courseware varies significantly across languages. The basic platform is replicated for all languages and content is top notch for high demand languages like English, Spanish, French, and Italian. Delve into Farsi, Catalan, or Urdu, however, and you will realize the course developers for your target language didn’t agree on which of five words for “boy” should be used. Arabic, for example, reads right to left, but words are ordered left to right in the software, and the developers didn’t bother to teach the alphabet, making the entire course bewildering for a person who has no experience with Arabic script.
A Language Learning Revolution?
Despite its shortcomings, social networking is a big leap forward in language learning. And it’s an approach that has tech-based language learning powerhouses like Rosetta Stone and byki.com scrambling to get on board.
Rosetta Stone, for example, has begun offering similar features as Livemocha to its registered software users, many of whom pay upwards of $1,000 per course. However, Rosetta Stone’s fee-based restricted access approach runs counter to the social networking platform approach — users, and lots of them, from all over the world online 24 hours a day. So far, it’s not helping to peddle any more of her familiar yellow boxes from airport lounge kiosks. Why pay Rosetta when you can log on to Livemocha for free?