As technology continues to disrupt higher education, shouldn’t some of that disruption come to language learning, as well? A new Spanish language learning tool called Fluencia answers that question with an emphatic "sí."
Christopher Cummings, Fluencia’s CEO, is in fact following in his older brother’s footsteps. Back in 1999, Cumming’s brother and sister-in-law founded the website SpanishDict.com, recording thousands of audio pronunciations of words. "The site was Googlesque in its simplicity," recalls Cummings, which led to the site’s rapid rise in popularity.
In 2007, while Cummings was studying for a JD and MBA at Harvard, he approached his brother with a vision of how to grow the site. Cummings took over, reprogrammed the site, hired a few interns, added some features, and soon the site was growing explosively. Within a few years, he says, it had become the largest Spanish reference site online, with 9 million unique visitors per month.
If you were Cummings, you might have stopped there—after all, how could you grow a dictionary beyond that? But Cummings realized that the people who visited his site were motivated by a deeper hunger. After conducting a survey of 6,500 of his users, he confirmed his suspicion: most users weren’t visiting the site simply to translate a Spanish sign they passed. Most had an honest, earnest desire to learn Spanish as a second language—to acquire fluencia. "That suggested it was a really big market," says Cummings. He began to realize that his real competitor wasn’t the likes of WordReference or Google Translate. His real competitor was Rosetta Stone.
Cummings began expanding his team and connecting with Spanish-language educators to design college-level curriculum for Fluencia, which finally launched this September. It was crucial to Cummings that his team employ the latest research on how people actually learn languages. The finished product incorporates ideas like adapting to an individual’s rate of learning, "spaced repetition" to ensure retention, and a notion called "deliberative practice"—the observation that true expertise comes from practicing (deliberately) at the frontier of one’s comfort zone. The product was co-developed with a team of professors led by Cristina Sanz, language program director for Spanish and co-director of the Center for the Brain Basis of Cognition at Georgetown University.
Cummings has no shortage of reasons why he thinks his software is the ideal way to learn a language. For one, Fluencia allows users to learn at their own rate, and offers personalized feedback. And adult learners benefit in the early stages from Fluencia's native-language explanations of concepts, says Cummings. (Rosetta Stone, the grandaddy of language-learning programs, eliminates the use of the English language to explain lessons.)
The worldwide language learning market is said to be almost $60 billion (though of course, English learners of Spanish will only represent a percentage of that). While all five levels of Rosetta Stone Spanish retail for about $750 (often discounted to $450, Cummings admits), Fluencia offers a free trial followed by $14.95 a month. Currently, Fluencia offers instruction comparable to a year’s worth of college Spanish, or two years of high school Spanish. "We’re constantly adding new content," says Cummings, who recently invested in a video studio to beef up the app’s video content.
In these first two months of Fluencia’s existence, Cummings has been encouraged by positive user feedback and what he characterizes as a very high conversion rate to paid users. Most heartening, though, has been to discover that his users are far from lazy—the content they rate most highly is the content that they struggle with the most and find the most challenging, whereas they rate simple content lower. "It was surprising," says Cummings, "because the conventional wisdom for online education is to make it more gamelike." Fluencia users aren’t out for cheap, mindless tasks like easy vocabulary games—they want to learn, and they want to strain at that frontier of "deliberative practice" that yields true expertise.
It’s a lesson all online education startups could stand to learn. "I think the element of games that matters is the idea of challenging people," muses Cummings. "When you say something’s ‘gamelike,’ it doesn’t mean dumbing it down and making sure things are easy. It means challenging people at the right level. People like that, and I think that part of the reason people find Fluencia fun is that it’s challenging at the right level."