Adaptive language learning at the starting gate

Mait Müntel , CEO at Lingvist

Mait Müntel , CEO at Lingvist

Cooori is not the only rally car competing in the race to personalize language learning. Notable other firms include Duolingo, Babbel, Busuu, Lingvist, OKPanda, Open English and Tutor Group. Each offers a slightly different service, but all claim to use next-generation technology to speed up language learning. The London/Tallinn based Lingvist, for example, advertises that one can “learn a language in 200 hours”. Both Lingvist and Cooori claim to offer language learning that is “ten times faster”. Are these assertions accurate? We spoke to Lingvist’s CEO Mait Müntel at Slush Asia 2016 in Tokyo to find out.

Müntel says all firms claim to offer adaptive and personalized learning. “What’s behind those words,” he asks? “It doesn’t mean that you’re adaptive just because you say it. In a startup business, the pitch comes first,” he says frankly.

For instance, Lingvist’s online offering currently lacks voice recognition, a feature Müntel recognizes is crucial for learning languages. “It’s technically more complicated. We’re starting with the simple stuff first. It’s on our road map,” he says, noting that will take another year before they offer it.

He believes the bottleneck lies less with the machine learning algorithms and more with a lack of good course material. Traditional textbook content often cannot be used on digital platforms, so new course material must be created from scratch. Firms like Lingvist are now experimenting to find out what works and what does not.

Beacon Reports was quick to point out that early adapters who partake in such experiments typically find technology interferes with learning. How long did Müntel think it would take before language learning technology becomes sufficiently transparent so users can get on with the learning? That will take “a couple of years,” he thought adding, “The language learning field is developing fast. We’re in the middle of the process.”

Müntel, a former Cern particle physicist, launched Lingvist in April 2013 on encouragement from the technological co-founder of Skype, Jaan Tallinn. The two Estonians had randomly met earlier at a conference. At the time, Tallinn was learning to speak Japanese while also developing language learning software. After spending the day together comparing notes, Tallinn dropped his own software development to invest in Lingvist. Müntel has since raised a total of €10 Million. Japan’s Rakuten is among their lead investors.

With competitors fueled and revving their engines, excitement is building in the race to perfect next-generation language learning programs.

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