In an age when education is undergoing rapid transformation—by becoming more electronic, more personalized, more measurable—should language education be any different? A New York-based English-language learning startup, Voxy, doesn’t think so. Voxy, which has garnered $20 million in funding to date and has 3 million students, is now poised to raise its profile in Brazil, where it has offered up its English Language-learning platform to 40,000 affiliates of the Uber-like 99 Taxis, just in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup next month.
Voxy turns language learning on its head. While a college course often begins by teaching basic building blocks of language—the verb "to be," for instance, with all its conjugations—Voxy begins by asking learners what they want or need to know, and then presents a tailored curriculum based on that. So long before a Sao Paolo taxi driver using Voxy learns to say "She eats ice cream," he’ll be getting module after module drilling him on vocabulary about tourism, directions, cars, and money.
What distinguishes Voxy is its wealth of content, and the way its algorithms personalize it. Voxy ingests reams of content through partnerships with the Associated Press, Financial Times, and Bloomberg (both videos and news articles); it scours the web for free content, and it also creates content of its own. It uses natural language processing techniques to figure out what a piece of content is about, and then it turns that piece of content into a learning lesson, tagging it with metadata. The process is "automated as much as possible," explains Katie Nielson, a linguist who is the company’s chief education officer. Since natural language processing isn't perfect, humans do give each lesson a once-over before the content is uploaded into the system.
This hybrid methodology has enabled Voxy to assemble 6,000 pieces of content, turning each of them into a little language lesson. The more content, the more Voxy can offer a personalized experience for each user. "We tag our content as specifically as possible," says Nielson, "with the idea to create custom lessons that are personalized based on a learner’s profile." So a taxi driver in Sao Paolo could get modules that are different from those served up to a taxi driver in Bangkok.
In situations where Voxy can’t acquire relevant content, it creates it. Anticipating that tourists coming to New York would have questions about the city’s Citibike bike share system, Voxy recorded questions about how the system worked. To prepare learners for job interviews, Voxy hired actors for what Nielson calls a kind of unscripted improv activity, anticipating the sorts of questions and answers common in those situations.
Voxy’s novel mash-up of algorithmic and human lesson planning enables it to conduct interesting experiments. For instance: Voxy will search your iPhone’s song library, and then it can create language lessons out of the songs you already own. Voxy will present lyrics as you listen to the song, karaoke style, highlighting keywords and presenting definitions for them. You can get a pop culture and vocabulary lesson all at once, says Nielson. "So you can say, in this song Adele is saying ‘rolling in the deep.’ What are the possible meanings of that?" Voxy currently has lessons for 123 of the most popular songs worldwide, and it's continually adding new ones based on songs in its users' iTunes libraries.
Using geolocation, Voxy can also offer you language lessons based on your routines. Do you pass through an airport often, or do you work in a banking district? Voxy can pick up on that and give you tailored language lessons.
Beneath its algorithmic and personalized approach is Voxy’s deep commitment to what Nielson calls "authentic content." "Textbooks don’t include examples of genuine discourse," she says, which is one reason you might have been trained to call a French waiter "garçon," even though no actual French person does that anymore. And that faux pas in turn might have caused you to clam up on your trip to France, which in turn prevented you from learning and growing more. "What we know from decades of research on how to learn languages," she says, is that you’re far more likely to improve quickly if your lessons are "relevant to your needs, and you have an immediate application for them."
In this, Voxy mirrors Nielson’s own experience learning Spanish. A Spanish major who went abroad after much study of the language, she found she could talk about Cervantes, but she didn’t know how to buy a stamp.
Whether or not they’re admirers of Shakespeare, thousands of Brazilian cabbies are about to be spared an analogous problem. When tourists flood their cabs and start talking about actual, relevant, real-world tasks, the drivers should be good to go.