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November 3, 2012

I’m grateful for this assessment of risk provided by Edstartup 101 (  I believe I am often like a teenager that thinks, ah, I’m not at any risk; I take care of myself too well to have any risk.  Of course, I often underestimate how much risk is actually involved, and how much work a project will take.  It feels good to challenge that premise.

Here are my responses to Edstartup 101’s assessment questions.

1.  Is someone else already working on this problem? If so, how are they doing?

There are a lot of people working on the problem of language acquisition: teachers in public and private schools, tutors, books, dictionaries, software, websites, apps, and just doing it on your own.  People have been working on teaching and learning languages for a long time.  The technology used in language acquisition is more developed than the majority of the educational technology market.  But the language acquisition market is changing.

A recent review of giant Rosetta Stone (, besides pointing out recent losses, claimed that the market is moving away from the direct selling of language acquisition software to other cheaper methods, like through websites and apps.  It doesn’t take long to find a large amount of free websites that claim to teach Spanish, and apps in the iPhone store that are free (at least initially).

How are the alternatives to software like Rosetta Stone doing?  I don’t have an exact answer to that, but I would guess that they are not very effective.  Rosetta Stone was having a hard time keeping users actively engaged in their product (, and I would guess that apps and websites have an even harder time.  One of the recent speakers in Edstartup stated that there is something about having a teacher collecting your assignments that motivates you to get it done.  Apps and websites don’t have the same motivational ability.  A good app has to find a way to motivate people.  Duolingo is an example of an alternative motivational strategy, a motivation to contribute to society coupled with the desire to learn a language.

I haven’t seen anything in the app store dealing with language acquisition that really stands out as different than the rest, mainly vocabulary flash card tools.   Maybe someone out there has seen something better than I have.

2.  If others have failed in solving this problem, why did they fail?

I have seen more failures than successes in developing language ability.  Our high school system is a testament to that.  I took three years of Spanish, but could have learned more in three intensive days than in all three years.  Most successes in language acquisition happen by being immersed in the environment.   I have met a couple people that made it through the college system with decent Spanish language ability, so it is possible.  I don’t believe I have met anyone that claims their Spanish ability came from a program, website, or app.

The question could be asked, why did they fail?  I’m guessing that there are a million opinions on that.  My theory is based on three things–1) motivation, 2) cognitive load and 3) depth in memory.

1) motivation: Motivation to learn a language is gained mainly from the need to speak to someone(s) who speaks the language.  Logical.  The challenge is the word need.  Many people have some interaction with Spanish in the United States, and they would like to learn some Spanish, but it takes a lot of work and time to be proficient at Spanish.  Dropout jumps into play when people realize that the price of learning a new language is not worth the perceived benefit.

2) cognitive load: As I was looking at the concepts of recognition and recall, I found a chapter titled Recognition is Easy; Recall is Hard (from the book Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules, Johnson, 2010).  That simple title describes for me the cognitive load of language acquisition tasks.  It is easy to recognize words, it is hard to recall (or speak) words.  I believe that a lot of people begin the recognize process just fine, and then they hit the recall process and the cognitive load jumps up.  Drop out rates sky rocket when students hit that point.

3) depth in memory: An alternative to the computer metaphor for understanding memory is the onion metaphor.  An onion?  Onions have deep layers.  Memories can be deeply ingrained in the brain and meaningful or just fleeting thoughts. This contrasts with the input/output of a computer, where information is either in or out, not deeply ingrained.  I remember studying vocabulary for high school Spanish.  I would spit the words out for a test and then promptly forget them.  Most of the vocabulary is never integrated into our cognitive maps enough to be used in language.  Then our lack of vocabulary contributes to lack of success, our self efficacy decreases, and drop out becomes a viable option.

3.  Is there anyone who doesn’t want this problem solved and can they stand in my way?

Companies producing digital products do not want their customers stolen away.  I don’t believe there is much they can do about it though.  They would just have to build a better product than mine.

4.  Are there any laws or regulations that stand in my way?

I cannot think of any laws that may directly stand in my way.  I will have to make sure I have the legal ability to collect peoples’ sound files of vocabulary and phrases.  I also have to make sure I do not directly violate any patents, but so far I don’t know of any.

5.  What will happen if I try to solve the problem and fail?

Luckily if I fail, not much will happen.  The cost of developing software is much lower than before, so financial risk is low.  I also won’t have a physical product, and marketing will not be as big and expensive since I’m mainly relying on the app stores.  I will lose the time I put into development.  Even with the risks, I will also gain.  I will learn a lot.  I have paid enough for my college education that the learning would be worth any other loss.  The learning may be more important than the money.  My final goal is to help people.  If I fail, I move on with what I’ve learned and try again.


From → Education

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