Learning the Local Lingo�over Skype

A cottage industry has sprung up using free VoIP services to connect language students with native-speaking instructors the world over.

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Sep 9, 2009
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David Talbot is a pioneer in using Skype to disrupt and transform a little-noticed but substantial and increasingly important industry: language training. In fact, Talbot says he’s the pioneer.

The idea is simple: Connect language tutors with students over Skype for one-to-one, often custom-tailored lessons.

Talbot, managing partner of Los Angeles-based My Personal Language Tutor (MyPLT) and a "language hobbyist," conceived the idea almost five years ago and launched his company in 2006.

Today, MyPLT has 60 independent tutors teaching more than ten languages, including mainstays such as French and Spanish, as well as odd-ball options such as Latin and Classical Greek.

Since 2006, more than a few copycats have come along, including VerbalPlanet, which has introduced some additional wrinkles, and numerous language- and country-specific companies using the same one-to-one language training over Skype model.

Two of the recently announced regional winners in the Skype for Business Competition run by Skype are English as Second Language (ESL) companies that use this model—Elf English in Russia and RareJob in Japan.

Meanwhile, others such as Soziety and xLingo Language Exchange Community have adapted the idea to a free, community-based approach in which language learners are matched with language buddies over Skype.

"You couldn’t do this without Skype or a Skype look-alike," Talbot says of his company’s business model. "You have to have free telecom. The cost per lesson is $20 [for an hour]. If we had to pay long distance out of that, it would be uneconomical."

Tutors also need the instant messaging component of Skype to interact with students using text to clarify oral parts of the lesson.

But is Skype good enough and reliable enough for the kind of critical voice communication needed in a language tutorial? Talbot says it wasn’t always, but it definitely is now.

He was running a software development firm when the idea for MyPLT came to him. The company was using contract programmers in Kiev, Ukraine, with whom he communicated via Skype.

The Ukrainians spoke English, but Talbot thought it would be fun to learn some Russian so he could speak to them in their own language.

"I tried a couple of things: classes at [UCLA] and also with a private tutor," he says. "But the travel times in Los Angeles meant that to get to a 7:30 class at UCLA, for example, I’d have to leave two hours in advance."

Then he discovered that one of the secretaries at the Kiev company had a university language degree. She agreed to teach him over Skype. It worked—really well. The rest, as they say, is history.

Running the company is now Talbot’s full-time job. MyPLT has hundreds of students enrolled at any one time and has helped a few thousand in the last three and a half years.

Shelley Boyes, Toronto-based director of marketing and network development for the World Law Group, an association of law firms in different countries, is one. Boyes used the service for six months last year and will use it again, she says.

A lifelong language learner who speaks Spanish and French at an intermediate level, Boyes sometimes uses her languages for work—when communicating with non-English speakers in member firms, reviewing English translations of articles written by lawyers or reading untranslated parts of firm Web sites.

Having language skills isn’t essential, she says. "But it helps." Besides she likes being able to speak the local lingo when she travels.

Boyes had for years taken classroom lessons and experimented with software-based language training, but her work schedule, which involves teleconferences with colleagues around the world, often interfered with getting out to classes.

MyPLT gave her the flexibility to schedule—and sometimes reschedule—lessons to suit her timetable. "That’s the best thing, the flexibility—and not having to physically leave your office, especially in bad Canadian weather," she says.

And it was relatively inexpensive: $20 per hour-long lesson, plus the cost of a high-end computer telephone headset (a little over $100).

She adds, however, that Skype tutorials can’t entirely replace classroom learning. "It helps when you’re listening to other students as well as yourself." But she believes MyPLT is a good option for people who are pressed for time.

Boyes wanted to hone her Spanish, both for work and because she’s contemplating a half-year sojourn in Spain in 2010. MyPLT set her up with a Mexican-American tutor living in the U.S. in the same time zone. Her teacher agreed to tailor classes to her particular needs—improving grammar and pronunciation.

"It was very good," Boyes says. "My guy was knowledgeable. He was a language teacher and tutor full-time so his teaching technique was good. But it was very informal and he made it interesting and enjoyable."

MyPLT insists tutors be native speakers and, with few exceptions, have previous teaching experience and university language degrees if possible. Many, like Boyes’ tutor, teach for others as well, including for traditional language training organizations such as Alliance Francaise and Berlitz.

Over the 20 lessons Boyes took, Skype, running over her high-speed cable modem service, rarely let her down. "I can really only recall one or two times that [call quality] wasn’t adequate. But we’d hang up and try again. and for some reason, the connection would be better."

Talbot says call quality with Skype has improved enormously in the three and a half years he has been running the company. People have faster Internet connections—some were using dial-up in the beginning. Computers are more powerful. Audio components have improved dramatically just in the past year or so. And Skype has continued to improve call quality and reliability.

In most parts of the world, including China and the Middle East, call quality is more than adequate, even for adding video to tutorials—something Boyes chose not to do.

A few places are more problematic. While most of Russia is fine, the far eastern part of the country tends to have less reliable connections. And in francophone Africa, Internet connections are so poor they really can’t support MyPLT’s service.

While MyPLT will never make the Fortune 1000—or even 1,000,000—it has had some modest success, which as always, attracts imitators. Without naming names, Talbot claims at least one has plagiarized his site. He knows this because the same spelling errors in the MyPLT FAQ page—since corrected—have showed up in FAQs at another site.

VerbalPlanet, which declined an interview request for this article, appears to be MyPLT’s principal competitor. It has a slightly more sophisticated Web site, offers more languages (about 20) and sells more language-related products such as books and online/iPod language lessons.

Soziety, one of a few language learning communities, lets you choose language buddies by location—so you can choose someone in the place you’re going to visit. Its Web site presents a Google Maps mash-up with flags marking locations of available speakers of a language.

Talbot seems little troubled by the prospect of more competition. He’s gradually growing the business and experimenting with moving into the ESL market in China where there is great need, he says. There should be lots of business for all.

"The surface," Talbot says, "hasn’t even been scratched yet."

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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