In this interview with Clint Schmidt, LiveMocha’s [former] Vice President of Marketing and Product, he shares what he thinks makes LiveMocha unique and he introduces some exciting new products coming down the pipe. He also responds to some of my grilling questions about the role of grammar in language learning. To learn more about LiveMocha, check out my review of the site’s pros and cons.
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John Fotheringham: This is episode 4 of the Foreign Language Mastery podcast. I’m your host, John Fotheringham. In today’s show I interviewed Clint Schmidt, vice president of marketing and product at Livemocha. For show notes and transcripts go to languagemastery.com. Here is the phone interview originally recorded on May 12, 2010.So why don’t we start out, maybe you can just give my listeners a brief overview of Livemocha, what it’s like, how it’s different from other sites? And then I’ll go on to some specific questions then.
Clint Schmidt: Sure. Livemocha is the world’s largest online language learning community with free and paid online language courses in 35 languages and more than 500 million members from over 200 countries around the world. Livemocha is growing very rapidly and really quite virally around the world. A lot of them are word of mouth and recommendations from Livemocha members.
[01:15] I think people are enthusiastic about Livemocha because it’s really different from alternative or conventional language learning approaches. We studied some traditional self-study language products to understand why they were still ineffective. And we identified two critical elements that were lacking; sustained motivation and opportunities to practice the language with another person. And we created Livemocha to deliver both of those elements and to make language learning more fun and more effective and more social.So each of our structured online courses include speaking and writing exercises that are reviewed by native speakers of the language that you’re learning. And those folks provide helpful tips for you to improve your language skills. And in returning the favor, you can help them learn your native language. So it’s a community-driven learning and it’s all based on reciprocity. And it’s really exciting and it’s a very distinctive way to learn.
John: [02:36] You have actually done a few of the corrections already on the site, a couple of people pops up on the screen, “Would you like to correct so-on-so’s writing sample?” So you mentioned about motivation being one of the biggest problems with traditional language learning which is absolutely true. How specifically does Livemocha keep you motivated?
Clint: Part of the motivation problem we found is that it’s just boring to use some of the more traditional self-study methods. They give you a book. They trust that you’re going to read the book and then you’re going to memorize it and then you’re going to talk to yourself out loud in your room, in the closet or in your car. Wherever it is, you’re just going to talk to yourself and that gets boring. It’s like homework without the teacher. You know if the teacher is not going to review it you don’t do it.
[03:30] A couple of things that are motivating about Livemocha; number 1 you know somebody is going to review your spoken and written French or your spoken and written Russian right there. Somebody who is actually going to be there to review it. So you want to do a good job. It motivates you to do your best work if you know that somebody else will review it. But it’s also motivating in another important way in that you’re actually working with real people. And these people are helping you over the course of time repeatedly, make your way to the lessons. Perhaps you’re helping them as well to learn your native language. And you start to develop a bit of a rapport with people. And that rapport brings the social element back to language learning. Imagine that being social as part of language learning.It helps keep people engaged. It helps keep people excited. It helps make it fun and bring a real person and a real character and a real interaction into the equation. And it doesn’t make it so brutally boring to go back and pick up that book again. Instead it’s fun, interactive exercises with people there to help you along. We started to change the whole approach to make motivation no longer an issue.
John: [04:45] Now how do you guys account for quality control for tutors and for things like that? It’s obviously crowd source. It’s anyone who wants to help can help. But if you get a case where there is a tutor who is giving blatantly bad advice or is being offensive or whatever, do you have a means to control that?
Clint: Absolutely. So I get into that in a couple of ways. First the easiest to give is that if somebody says anything inappropriate or just not very nice perhaps, you can easily block any user on Livemocha. When you do that you will never see that person on Livemocha again anywhere. They won’t appear to you in the community. In fact if a specific member of Livemocha is blocked by many others, we automatically remove them from the community entirely. And so it’s a self-policing community in our way if people who aren’t productive or aren’t being helpful, they’re just removed naturally.
[05:51] Now with regard to the specific feedback that you get, yes, some people are more helpful than others. Some people will just say, “Yeah, good job;” other people will say, “You know, that was a good job but actually we pronounce this word a little bit different. You need to roll your R a little bit more this way.” It’s a good greater level of depth if you will to instruct you. And what we find is that the people who give that greater level of depth tend to attract a lot of language partners to help them because you’re rewarded by your students, so to speak, who can rate you as being particularly helpful.
John: OK. The next question is how do you sort of rise up or go down in the ranks of tutoring. So your actual feedback you give to your students will be rated?
Clint: [06:44] That’s right. Your students will rate the helpfulness or not of the review that you give to them. And so on Livemocha we keep track of both the quantity of the help you give others and the quality based on student ratings.
John: And then that shows up in your points? Is that translated to…?
Clint: It shows up in your points. It shows up on your profile. It’s visible to the rest of the community. So if you’re choosing somebody on Livemocha to be your language partner and ask them to review your speaking and writing exercises, you’re going to choose somebody who has done a lot of work for others and who’s particularly helpful. You’ll invite them to help you. But you’ll also be very keen to help them because you want them to reciprocate.
[07:32] So what happens is the creme de la creme rises to the top. People who are really engaged in language learning and want to do a good job they attract the best partners and those people help each other. What we were finding over the course of time is that the community because of the dynamics that are naturally baked into the structure, the interactions on the site, the community just keeps getting better. Better people, better instructions, more recommendations with a higher quality of experience overall.
John: Right. Yeah, the bigger the pool, the higher quality it gets that’s for sure. Well what I did in the last few days I started studying Arabic on Livemocha, which I have absolutely no experience with. I wanted to see what it felt like as a new learner. I briefly used it for Japanese a few years ago. But I’ve already studied Japanese for many years. So it wasn’t an authentic experience for me as a newbie. And yeah, I did enjoy it. The only thing I encountered which may be my lack of understanding about how it works yet, it didn’t seem like there is any place on the site that would teach me how to Arabic from the very beginning, what specific Arabic letter is, how it’s pronounced. I think it’s already assumed that you already knew how to at least read the letters. Is that something I’m misunderstanding or is that case?
Clint: [08:55] In fact, you’re probably exactly right. That’s a gap on Livemocha that we are quite eager to fill. And we are working very hard right now to fill that. I think that those types of instructions are best provided by the community, how to say it in traditional Arabic as opposed to broader regional Arabic. There is slightly different pronunciation, slightly different character. And so you start to do very quickly take on a responsibility for content development that far exceeds our ability to deliver on it.It’s taking some time admittedly but what we’re trying to build is an infrastructure on Livemocha that accesses repository and self-rating if you will, a repository for community-generated grammatical tips, grammatical feedbacks, specific pronunciation guide, even cultural and travel tips. There is a framework of community-generated content that we can wrap around the lessons that will make the lessons more effective, that will make them more relevant.
John: [10:10] I did notice that on the right side of the screen. You had a little section. You get thumb up or thumb down tip for any of those.
Clint: Yeah. That’s a poor man’s manifestation, the thumb, of the features that I’m talking about now.
John: Well it’s a start. It was helpful. I mean you could see if somebody would spend enough time to write something meaningful, it would get thumbed up and that will be the first thing that showed up. And when you click to view all the tips, you could see someone there that was not very constructive. And then they didn’t show up as often.
Clint: Correct. We can do a much better job with that and we will and are doing a much better job with that. But it does take some time when a site like ours is growing as fast as we are. And sometimes just keeping the lights on is a challenge so to speak. So we’ll get there but it is taking time.
John: [11:00] Right. I know how that goes. So down the road what are some future things that Livemocha users can look forward to? Features? Functions?
Clint: Yeah. I have a little bit of insight that I can share there. Some of it are super top secret. But one thing that I would be happy to share is the type of content that we make available on Livemocha is going to be changing. The best manifestation of this change is represented by our partnership with Pearson.We collaborated with Pearson to create a new course on Livemocha that’s a premium, paid-only course for people who are learning English. It’s called Livemocha Active English. And the focus of the course is entirely around conversational English, real conversation, real day-to-day dialog, showing English native speakers conversing with one another with subtitles available for language learners and dozens of languages, presenting English grammar to a student in their native language, in dozens of native languages, presenting vocabulary in a similar fashion and then with that familiar Livemocha reciprocal burning that’s integrated into an even richer course.
[12:30] It would deliver a lot of things that Livemocha’s current courses do not, including that video content and more explicit grammar instruction. We’re taking that model and now also expanding it in collaboration with Harper Collins to create similar courses for Spanish, French, German and Italian. And we may be looking forward to similar such courses in the future for a longer list of languages beyond.What we’re finding again and again is that what draws people to Livemocha and what they’re enthusiastic about language learning for is to have those conversations with native speakers with confidence. They want be able to go to the plaza in Madrid and ask for the best place in the town to have cafe con leche and to be able to understand what they’re saying and to say “Thank you” and to greet new people, introduce themselves. It’s not rocket science the types of things that people are aspiring to do. But the traditional tools just don’t really get from there.
John: [13:36] Yeah. I completely agree. That’s what my entire site is about. It’s why the traditional method doesn’t work and what does work. Now you mentioned about adding more explicit grammar explanations in people’s native languages. In my experience and research that actually partly contributes to the inefficiency of traditional methods, focusing too much on information about the language and then not getting enough input in the language.It’s not to say that the occasional glance at the declenching table can’t be somewhat useful. But especially for beginners I find that the reason they never get excited about the language and the reason they never get to practice listening and therefore cannot speak the language is because they spend too much time whether it’s in a book or on a website not listening enough to the actual native language and spending too much time thinking. How do you think Livemocha can overcome that handicap?
Clint: [14:48] Well I think the one thing that’s often lacking from the same traditional methods is just as you’ve mentioned the ability or the opportunity to put the language into practice and to actually have those conversations. The best way to learn how to have a conversation is to try having a conversation. The sequence of our lessons, the sequence of our exercises for these new courses, while they will indeed teach you more about the language you’re learning in your native language, they culminate in asking you to put the language into practice in real interaction with native speakers. So the introduction of let’s say grammar and vocabulary is a means to an end, not the end itself.
John: My basic contention is that if you learn a language, what I consider the correct way, there’s many minor variations that differ from person to person, basically if you’re learning the language through input, through topics you’re interested in, through just lots of listening and reading input you’ll eventually get it. You don’t need to be too academic about it because I said earlier I think being overly conscious, consciously looking at how things work, I think is what slows people down. And I think is what makes people believe Chinese or Japanese are difficult languages. They are difficult if you go about them academically because they’re so different from English. But in their essence all languages have evolved the same way. They all use the same part of our brains. They all rely on the same basic structures deep down.
Clint: [16:37] That’s really interesting. To me it touches on one of my dissertation topics. They are somewhat connected, that traditionally just because of technology limitations you were really constrained in being able to teach a lot of people a new language just because it was a one-too-many type of thing. You had a teacher and he was the one that had the knowledge and the sort of negating factor for disseminating that knowledge.
John: Yeah. It was broadcast only. Now we have uni-cast education.
Clint: You got it.
John: Just cool. Now there is no excuse now, I mean with so many wonderful products available online, many of which have a premium model like Livemocha. You can try it out. It’s up to 202; I guess it’s free.
Clint: [17:26] That’s right.
John: So there is no excuse. You can get on there. You can try it on podcasts like this one. I mean a lot of my listeners and readers are actually ESL students. So they’re using what we’re talking about right now to learn English to improve their English. And then what I do is I provide a transcript of each podcast so they can actually listen and then read each episode. So anyway there is a plethora of opportunities now so there is no excuse. Now you mentioned you have 30-plus languages on the site?
Clint: That’s right, over 30 languages. Occasionally we add new ones or take some other’s software to further improve or adjust the content. But right now we have 35 languages.
John: What are the top 10 most popular on the site?
Clint: [18:16] Top 10, let’s see. I can give it to you in a rough order.
John: That’s fine.
Clint: Number one most popular was clearly English, followed by an almost tie for Spanish and French followed by an almost tie for German and Italian, followed then by an almost tie for Japanese and Mandarin.
Clint: And then right after that it quickly disperses into a very long tail of languages all the way from Swedish to Czech to Hindi to Urdu to Croatian and so on.
John: Right. That’s interesting. If you looked at the list of the most commonly spoken languages in the world by native speakers versus the most commonly studied foreign languages, it’s amazing that difference there.
Clint: [19:05] Well the fastest riser in Livemocha easily is Arabic. I expect that Arabic will be among the top 5 languages that people want to learn by this time next year.
John: Yeah. That’s what I would point out. In the recent past it was not even in many university programs. And now it’s something a lot of people are going after. But if you pull all the Arabic dialects together, it’s I think number 3 or number 4.
Clint: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s all about English, Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic. Everything else is curiosity. In fact that long tail of languages that are available in Livemocha are there largely because our community has taken upon themselves to translate our sequence of words and phrases that comprise our lessons into their native language.
Clint: [20:03] So the reason why we have Croatian 102 is because we have enough Croatian native speakers on Livemocha who would like to see us offer that to those who want to learn Croatian.
John: Very cool. I mean that’s the way you’re going to do it. There is no way you’ll every get all the languages unless there is some kind of open source, crowd source, Wikipedia-esqueway of doing it.
Clint: Yeah. The really cool thing is that because our lessons are a sequence of words and phrases and that sequence is fixed, we can show you translations in any one of those language pairs. So if you’re a Spanish speaker who wants to learn Russian, we can show you the pairing there. If you’re a Russian speaker who wants to learn Hindi, we can show that pairing, a Hindi speaker who wanted to learn Swedish, a Swedish speaker who wanted to learn Croatian. So you start to get into that long tail and you exponentially increase the number of relevant students and teachers that you can attract in the community.
John: [21:03] Right. In my experience because I studied Japanese first when I start studying Mandarin, a lot of times it’s actually preferential for me to use a Mandarin book or material meant for a Japanese person because 80% of the vocabulary came from Chinese. Same for Korean if you’re going to learn Korean.
John: So that actually is helpful in a lot of ways. I can see the derivations, “Oh OK. That character came from that character. OK I got it.”
Clint: I’m doing the exact same thing myself in learning Italian. I’m majoring in Spanish and it’s much easier for me to absorb Italian with Spanish as my orientation point.
John: [21:47] Yes. Thank you to you for your time and for making a good product. What was the new thing coming down the pipe?
Clint: Yes. Our Active Livemocha, active German, active Spanish, active French, active Italian.
John: And active Chinese I’ll be waiting.
Clint: That one will be on the top of the list.
John: I’ll be first in line.
Clint: [22:09] Thanks John.
John: Hopefully by the time it comes out I’ll be a tutor instead of just a student. We’ll see.
Clint: We’re ready for you.
John: All right. Actually there is one more question. Is there any limitations on who can tutor? Do I have to be a native speaker or can I just be proficient in the language?
Clint: [22:25] No. It’s all self-selected provided that you indicate on your profile that you are indeed a fluent or a native speaker of the language. We’ll let you try your hand at correcting others. But as I mentioned, if you’re not proving to be too helpful, the community will quickly let us know and you may not be on Livemocha much longer or identified as someone who is very helpful. But you’re free to try it.
John: Got it. All right. Clint, thank you so much for your time.
Clint: You bet. Thank you, John.
John: For a transcript of this show and more tips, tools and tech for learning any language effectively, go to languagemastery.com.