Vancouver language-learning company LingQ grew from the most unlikely of origins.
Polyglot Steve Kaufmann had always been interested in studying new languages. Stationed at the Canadian Embassy in Japan in the early ’70s, he taught himself Mandarin and Japanese from scratch, and educated his young son (and later business partner) Mark in the fundamentals of the local tongue. Instructing others professionally on how to speak new languages, however, had never been a goal for the public servant—until, many years later, back home in West Van, he chanced upon a news story.
“One day, my dad was learning Cantonese, and he was listening to the local Cantonese radio station,” LingQ CEO Mark Kaufmann recalls, on the line to the Georgia Straight from the company’s headquarters. “He heard about this Chinese immigrant who landed at the airport and had his life savings stolen, which was in his luggage. Apparently, that’s not too uncommon a thing. This guy was a graduate of their top technical university, and my dad thought, ‘Maybe we can help him out.’ He thought we could offer him a job for a couple months and help him get on his feet, and provide him with some local experience. And then if it worked out, we could even use him in our software development, because at that time we were making software systems for lumber companies.”
Steve called up the radio station and collected the man’s details. A few weeks later, he came to work at the company.
“We quickly found out that he couldn’t understand us, and we couldn’t understand him,” Mark recalls with a laugh. “And even though he had a high score on the standardized English test, it turned out that he was not capable of functioning in a white-collar environment. Looking into it, we found out that there are a lot of people like him—skilled immigrants that aren’t employed in their field because their language skills aren’t where they need to be to work in a mainstream English environment. At that point, we decided to help this guy with his English, so we had our developers make a quick little program for him. And then we said, ‘You know what? Since this seems to be a problem that’s out there, maybe we can build a solution to this.’ ”
LingQ, pronounced “link”, provides an alternative to methods championed by language-learning giants like Rosetta Stone or Duolinguo. While both lay out lessons for new vocabulary, Mark believes that neither is able to offer enough words for students to reach a high standard of proficiency, or the context necessary to understand how to use them. The pair decided that individuals learn more naturally by passively reading and listening to long passages, rather than focusing on memorizing individual words and tedious grammar lessons—putting into practice the technique that helped Steve grow his own tally of languages to a cool 16.
“LingQ is very much input-based,” Mark says. “There’s a lot of reading and listening, loading up vocabulary, and reading and listening again. The hardest part [with language-learning software] is finding content of interest. The more you enjoy the content, the more motivated you’re going to be. Your brain will start to make sense of the patterns on its own.”
The service is simple. Users can browse through LingQ’s archives to find writing on topics they find stimulating, including custom-made conversations and texts for beginners, while more advanced learners can upload their favourite ebooks in a foreign language—Harry Potter or novels by Dan Brown, for instance. As the student turns the page, the software automatically highlights new words in blue, and those they are learning in yellow. Words they’ve mastered appears as normal, but if users ever forget their meaning, LingQ offers integrated dictionaries that allow individuals to look them up. The system, Mark says, works for both reading and audio, with an accompanying transcript.
“We track all the words that you come across on our system,” Mark says. “It’s saved in your database. Every time you subsequently come across that word, you can click on it to refresh your memory. Over time, your page gets lighter. Those are visual clues that motivate and help you to work your way through the text and the language.”
LingQ’s software has seen more than 1.5 million sign-ups since it began, and now boasts about 400,000 site visitors monthly. The service currently offers around 14 languages, with varying amounts of pre-set content for each. Following LingQ’s approach of subconsciously learning by reading and listening to user-imported content, Mark believes, will help individuals advance faster.
“A lot of the time, you can feel like you’re not progressing, or that you’ve plateaued,” he says. “The way we present your development helps you feel like you are growing, and getting better and better without you even realizing.”
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