Once upon a time, learning French or Spanish meant you had to go to a brick-and-mortar classroom or immerse yourself in a summer abroad in Nice or Seville. CD-ROMs and DVDs led to an era of computer-based language training that eventually found its way to the web. Now, language instruction companies are expanding their reach by using multiple communication channels that integrate the cloud, mobile devices, and social networks.
Rosetta Stone, a brand most people recognize from its yellow boxes in the mall and its print and TV advertising, has been around since the early 1990s. Until a few years ago, it focused on desktop solutions, then added web and human interaction with its Total-e! product. The company recently announced the opening of two new technology hubs to support the company’s rapid shift toward more online, subscription-based digital learning products. Earlier this month Rosetta Stone acquired Livemocha, a pioneer in crowdsourced language learning. Livemocha boasts a global community of over 16 million members dedicated to learning, teaching, and practicing a new language. Its strength is in leveraging social media to connect language learners and instructors.
What does this acquisition mean for the sector? Ambitious language students crave any opportunity to practice their skills − wherever they are and whenever they are in the mood for it. And what better way to increase the chance to speak than to have a large network of similarly inclined learners online around the world and around the clock? The Livemocha acquisition adds some fun and a social twist to Rosetta Stone’s march through its many lessons. It feels less daunting to learn Arabic or Italian when you are making friends along the way.
In the last few years, startups have popped up to serve as online marketplaces for language enthusiasts. Take a look at sites such as busuu, italki, or Myngle which act as matchmakers between language learners and teachers. You even have a fair trade option, Glovico, which offers people from developing countries the opportunity to earn additional income through teaching their native language. Social media companies, such as VoxSwap, aim to connect learners and native language speakers who barter language tutoring − “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Chinese.” Verbling was one of those and moved on to add live classes, too. At the same time, more traditional web learning environments are trying to catch up by adding the community element, as in the case of Babbel.
According to The Education Sector Factbook 2012, the global language learning market size reached US$115 billion in 2012. What is a language instruction company to do when learners want access to content wherever they are? Successful companies understand the omni-channel opportunity to reach buyers everywhere and distribute learning content through the most asked-for media – smartphones, the cloud, chats, tweets, Google Hangouts, Facebook video calling, anywhere a language learner might choose to try out his or her latest expression in Japanese.
What’s in it for companies offering free language learning content? They offer complimentary access to a social network of language enthusiasts. Once they hook them with the value of the material and the interactions, they reel in those language learners with paid online classes and – potentially – offerings of travel to faraway climes where they can practice in person, product catalogs of language-related items, anything that might be interesting to the language student – and monetizable. This in itself has a greater chance of success for language instruction companies who have a chance to appeal to a broader mass.