Quite a few of my friends, colleagues, and even family members (cough, Aaron, cough) can "understand but not speak" a foreign language. I know that learning a language may not be top priority for everyone - and that's fine. But what gets my goat is when such "understanders" attribute their inability to speak to being bad at languages. Yes, I risk sounding like a jock by comparing language learning to weight lifting, but I don't think there is a better analogy to get my point across.
Have you ever seen a guy with a big upper body and skinny legs? If you've been to a gym, California beach, or music festival, chances are the answer is "yes". The reason for this muscular disproportionality stems from over-working one's upper body and neglecting one's legs. This isn't rocket science, it's common-sense.
If this logic is so obvious for weight lifting, why is it so difficult to apply to language learning? Learning a language is comprised of four components: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. One must work at all of them, consistently, without excuse. If you watch a lot of Spanish TV but rarely practice your spoken Spanish, you'll improve your listening skills but stagnate with your speaking.
These are not conjectures or obvious logical conclusions I've come to. While the science is complex, it can be distilled down to one conclusion: if you want to achieve fluency in a language, you must practice language's four components. Still don't believe me? See for yourself. The picture to the left highlights the fact that different parts of the brain -- much like different muscles in your body -- are responsible for language's four components.
When you first start learning a language, forging new neural pathways actually causes your brain to feel heavy and "worked". It hurts. It sucks. It's frustrating. Yet over time, things become easier, your confidence builds, and feelings of endorphins emerge. Learning a language and exercising are also similar in this respect - at the start, working out is hell for an unfit person, but an endorphin-rush heaven for those who do it regularly. This is especially true for language learning's "active" components, speaking and writing. The only way to master them, as Nike would say, is to just do it.
There is an abundance of reading and listening materials on the internet to practice any language. Chinese students can listen to British music, read a book by Australian author Tim Winton, and watch the Big Bang Theory whenever they'd like. Yet up until recently, they face relatively few opportunities to practice their oral English with native speakers. I also face this problem - I can download hundreds of apps to keep my German and Spanish fresh, but I struggle to find native speakers with whom I can practice. For these reasons, we've created NativeTalk. We're sure that NativeTalk will serve as an important tool for students to practice their spoken English. And, selfishly, I hope one day I can practice my German and Spanish on it.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This seemingly funny, completely puzzling question has been applied to a whole host of situations. We've discovered over the past year that it applied to us.
Let's start by saying that the majority of people with an app idea do not know how to program. They also likely do not have the disposable income to mobilize a team of programmers to get their idea off the ground.
To get the right people to program your app, you'll need some money, luck, or both.
As we pitched our idea last summer, we were told by over ten investors that they would love to invest in the idea once we had a working prototype. They wanted to see that our idea would work - and with good reason. After all, many young entrepreneurs have good ideas; what sifts the successful entrepreneurs from the dreamers is the ability to execute and bring an idea to life.
This is the chicken and egg problem non-tech savvy entrepreneurs face when trying to create an app: they need money to hire people to create their app, but they need a working app to attract investors.
There are a few ways to overcome this issue:
1) Outsource development to India or Eastern Europe. Pros: cheaper. Cons: communication issues, you may get ripped off, in the long run you probably still want in-house developers. How to: visit Accelerance or a similar service.
2) Find a high school or college student who loves your idea. Where can you locate large amounts of young programmers who are enthusiastic about changing the world and joining a startup? Hackathons. Student hackathons are huge weekend-long events where hundreds of students form groups and hack away on novel app ideas. At the end of the weekend, the groups display their results at tables, usually in a stadium or large conference area, and VCs, professors, and other entrepreneurs judge the viability of their ideas. Hackathons have become immensely popular and now take place nearly every weekend of the academic year. My advice - go to one of these hackathons to get inspired, network, and potentially find your future programmer or co-founder.
3) Learn to code yourself by attending a programming bootcamp. These have also grown tremendously over the past few years. They're pricey, but within a few weeks you can equip yourself with more knowledge about programming than you'd think possible. A fellow Penn grad recently started a NYC based bootcamp called Horizons.
4) Get lucky by finding an investor who believes in your idea so much that he/she is willing to front the money before you have a working prototype. We happened to have an angel investor follow and mentor us on our previous educational pursuit, and this investor believed in our idea so much that she was willing to provide seed funds to hire a full-time team of programmers and developers.
We remain grateful to our angel investor for fronting the funds to get started. Had we not had that initial financial boost to galvanize NativeTalk, we perhaps wouldn't be here today.
It would be a darn shame if the next revolutionary app idea weren't developed because of this tricky chicken and egg problem. If you find yourself in a tough spot wondering how you're going to get your idea off the ground, just remember that you are not alone. Separate yourself from the rest and get creative on how to make a good enough product to attract investors.
It was 11PM on an early December night, and I had just finished my assignment in the library, packed my bags, and headed for the Penn Shuttle stop, a free university shuttle service. It was particularly cold that week, so I decided to take the “lazy” option of riding the bus.
A group of students packed on the shuttle until it filled to its maximum capacity, leaving me and one other student at the stop to wait for the next bus to come. We exchanged “hellos” and as I could hear an accent in her voice, I asked where she was from. She told me she was from Wenzhou, China, and that she had been here for a year and a half doing her Master’s in Education. After making small talk for a short while, we discovered we shared many similar interests. For one, we both had a passion for language and expressed an eagerness to learn a new language. I proposed to Iva that I would teach her Spanish, a language I have been studying and speaking for the last 10 years, if she taught me Chinese. She excitedly agreed, we exchanged numbers, and arranged to meet the next night at the coffee shop halfway between our apartments.
For the next two weeks I met with Iva almost every evening. We talked, laughed, taught each other about each other’s cultures and languages, and began a friendship. Soon before we knew it, Christmas had arrived, and Iva and I went to our homes in China and Virginia, respectively.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I ran into Iva in the library. She told me about the growing need in China to interact with American students and teachers to assist in the college admissions process and receive tutoring on the GRE, TOEFL, and SAT. We started a company called Go America, and learned a tremendous amount about business and the education frenzy in China.
(Spoiler: this is where the story gets good.) We interacted with several Chinese students who had spent their whole lives preparing to be the best - they had remarkable extracurricular activities, the highest GPAs possible, and near perfect SAT/GRE math scores. Yet it was their spoken English that suffered greatly, and their TOEFL speaking scores that prevented them from getting into top universities.
Time and time again I heard the same frustration voiced among our students -- "Tom, how do I practice my oral English?" My answer was bland - find a language partner or seek out a native speaker in China. Both of these options were unrealistic, as having a language partner with another Chinese would likely result as an awkward failure, and native English speakers are far and few between in China.
It was then when Iva and I had the insight to match students in China with native English speakers in the U.S. through a mobile app. This is where our origins story ends, and where our journey to revolutionize how people practice foreign languages begins.