Social networking sites take language learning out of classroom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am

Many would suggest the best way to learn a foreign language is to be surrounded with native speakers. If travelling abroad is not an option, a broadband-connected personal computer may do the job - bringing native speakers within reach over the internet for hours of practice.

That is the idea behind Shanghai-based italki.com, a free social networking website focused on language learning, and Beijing-headquartered Idapted.com, which supports professional language training.

'It's a twist to the original Web 2.0 concept,' said William Bao Bean, director of the privately held italki and a partner at venture capital firm Softbank China and India Holdings. 'Instead of just making friends online, why not find a language partner who can teach you English or Spanish, while you teach him or her Chinese?'

Launched last December after receiving its first round of funding in July, italki has joined a nascent group of social networking sites integrated with language-learning services.

Competitors include United States-based Livemocha.com, established in September, and VoxSwap.com, set up in Britain in January.

These language training-dedicated, free social networks enable their users to practise with other members - aided by online communications tools like Skype, and essential peripherals such as webcam and microphones attached to their personal computers. Quality of training is not guaranteed, but the service is free and more interesting than traditional classroom language programmes.

So far, italki has attracted 250,000 registered users. In April alone, the site attracted 45,000 new users. About 20 per cent of its users are from the mainland and the rest spread across the globe, including 7 per cent from the United States, 4 per cent in India and 2 per cent in France.

While gaining popular use has not been a problem, the next challenge is to generate steady revenues.

'Just like Facebook, we intend to sell advertisements [to raise revenue],' said Mr Bean. 'There are many language-learning schools and other advertisers who will find our user base attractive.'

While equally enthusiastic about online language learning, Idapted co-founder and chief executive Adrian Li is unconvinced advertising would make a reliable revenue source. 'We have thought about a business like LiveMocha, but there is no revenue model,' he said.

Instead, Idapted sells English training courses online. For 2,000 yuan (HK$2,278) a month or 60 to 70 yuan an hour, each mainland student receives one-on-one language training from members of a US-based network of professional-at-home native speakers using the proprietary Idapted online training system called EQEnglish.

Mr Li said their rates were a bargain compared with a typical one-on-one English lesson on the mainland with a native speaker that costs up to 300 yuan an hour.

There appears to be a large domestic market for such services. Every year millions of Chinese students take English-language proficiency examinations to study or work aboard. The country's largest private education provider, New Oriental Education & Technology Group, built its empire on such examinations. Beijing-based New Oriental made more than US$136.4 million in revenue last year.

For International English Language Testing System examinations, there were over a million students every year, said Mr Li. And test preparation for IELTS is the top seller on Idapted's menu. It sold over 1,000 hours of English training last month, and it expected to do 10 times more in 12 months.

'Learning a language is an investment. If the quality is good, people are willing to pay,' he said. Idapted guarantees students joining its test preparation course for IELTS exam would improve their oral English score by 0.5 on a scale of 9.