"Language learning is like learning how to cook or how to surf," says Voxy founder Paul Gollash. It’s not something that is best learned in a classroom.
He’s right. I learned more French on a short visit to Paris than I did during four semesters in high school. But you can't travel to a foreign country whenever you want to learn a new language. That’s why Gollash started Voxy, a suite of mobile and browser applications designed to teach English to Spanish and Portuguese speakers through experience, not static exercises. Since its launch in September 2010, Gollash says Voxy has amassed a million and a half users, including tens of thousands of paying premium customers.
At its simplest, Voxy operates as an aggregator of foreign-language content, serving up the kind of news stories and other media that you would consume during your daily routines (except in a different language). The platform then quizzes you on vocabulary and reading comprehension based on each selection. But Voxy is more than just Rosetta Stone meets The New York Times. It also provides location-based lessons about your immediate surroundings and even supplies access to tutors via video chats.
"I’d spent half my twenties living and working in Spanish-speaking countries where I didn’t speak the native language, and I’d been really frustrated with the technology tools that were available to help learn a second language," Gollash says. "I couldn’t believe people were still learning from static content whether it’s on a DVD or even a webpage or book instead of learning from things that are very real in their life."
The key to Voxy's success is mobile. By capitalizing on users' existing mobile tendencies, like reading articles, taking photos of everyday objects, and checking into bars, Voxy turns everyday experiences into learning opportunities. "Every one of our million and a half users is learning something that is personally relevant to them," Gollash says. "Instead of ‘Jane kicks the ball,’ they’re learning about the news story or the song or the place where they were with their friends the night before."
If you snap a photo of a cool bicycle on the street, for example, Voxy will identify the object in the language you're learning and create an audio flash card. Voxy also uses your phone's GPS to find nearby locations—if you tag yourself at, say, a nearby bar, Voxy will provide relevant phrases so you don't accidentally order ten shots of tequila when all you want is a beer. Many of these features are only available with a paid subscription which starts at $9.99 a month. Meanwhile, the free account offers basic features including five lessons a week based on current news articles and simple translation tools.
Right now, Voxy only teaches English to Spanish and Portuguese speakers. But Gollash plans to expand the company's scope in the coming months by offering English lessons to customers in Eastern Europe and Asia, and by offering Spanish lessons to native English speakers. As the web makes the world a more connected place, learning each other's languages is crucial to unlocking the potential of these connections. Voxy's job is figure out how to apply the millions of check-ins, Instagram pics, and other bits of mobile behavior toward this goal.
[Image: Sharon Drummond]