Livemocha sounds like the latest neighborhood espresso bar. But in fact the website Livemocha (www.livemocha.com) appeals to anyone interested in learning a new language or teaching a foreign tongue.
Ironically, its two Seattle-based founders, Shirish Nadkarni and Krishan Seshadrinathan (both still connected to the company), brainstormed its name at a Starbucks, and thought it suggested two friends having coffee together. The name stuck.
Launched in 2007, Livemocha describes itself as the “world’s largest online language learning community, offering free and paid online courses in 38 languages.” It has 8.5 million members, and about 125,000 people use the site daily.
CEO Michael Schutzler said its goal is to “make language learning affordable, fun, and accessible for everyone.” Learning a language should entail more than memorizing a flash card, so Livemocha emphasizes conversational learning between a fluent speaker and student.
Americans are somewhat resistant to mastering new languages. Livemocha’s audience confirms this fact since 88 percent of its members are located outside the U.S. Schutzler attributes much of Livemocha’s success in attracting foreign audiences to Google’s search engine. Anyone who plugs in “learn a foreign language” in French, Chinese, Brazilian, or nearly any other language likely receives Livemocha as the response.
Why do so few Americans take advantage of the site? Schutzler says that Americans think they “can get away with being lazy” and don’t have to learn another language. As companies go global and staffs work in teams with overseas colleagues, learning new languages can make employees more productive and marketable. “People who are multilingual have a competitive edge,” he said.
Nonetheless, the most popular language studied on Livemocha is English. “English is the dominant language learned in the world,” Schutzler said. English is followed by Spanish (the number two language after English, even in China), French, Italian, and German. There’s also been interest in more obscure tongues such as Icelandic, Bulgarian and Lithuanian.
Members can take introductory courses on the site for free. But once serious learning begins, members have several options of how to participate including: 1) Members can “trade” their language skills to help another member and not have to pay. Someone fluent in French can help a beginner, earn points and then exchange these points to learn Spanish, Chinese, or another language; 2) Members can purchase premium independent study packages in five languages--English, French, Italian, German and Spanish--for $30 to $40 a month, which train beginners to be conversational and say good morning and order dinner; 3) Lastly, members can pay a minimum of $20 a month to learn a language, which can rise to $30 monthly for more intensified learning. Most learners spend about a year learning a language on Livemocha.
The site also pays tutors who teach online. There are about 50 tutors who teach students one-on-one.
Livemocha teaches languages through a combination of course work blended with audio and visual tools to teach vocabulary and grammar. In addition, it uses repetition through flash cards, but stresses learning a language through actual conversation with a fluent speaker. Moreover, it uses third-party software, which operates like Skype, where the teacher and learner can see each other and learn interactively.
Livemocha’s audience is split between the young and middle-aged. About half are ages 18 to 23, and that age bracket wants to learn a new language, improve skills, and become more marketable. The other audience is 40 years and older. Having established their careers, the over-40 set wants to travel more and learn new languages. The 23-to 40-year-old audience is too busy raising a family and establishing their careers to visit Livemocha and explore languages.
Livemocha can also reach high school and college learners because 40,000 teachers have enrolled on Livemocha to enhance their students’ learning. Students practice with native learners and teach beginners as well.
The site also markets itself to larger companies who want to improve the language skills of its global staff. For example, Google and News Corp subsidize for employees taking courses for free on Livemocha.
Most websites earn revenue from display and banner ads, but not Livemocha. “We’ve tried it and not had success,” Schutzler commented. “People are studying and having conversations, not clicking on banner ads,” he said, though the site still carries a handful of ads. Almost all revenue is generated by members paying for courses.
Despite its core strength of teaching languages, Schutzler says the service operates as a social networking site like Facebook and Twitter. On Livemocha, people connect with strangers who have common interests in learning languages. “We’re like a matchmaking site that brings together buddies,” he said.
Livemocha is introducing new services. It’s looking into organizing group language lessons, not just one-on-one sessions, and has lined up a cadre of teachers to do it. Livemocha wants to become a marketplace for teachers and students. Just like eBay connects buyers and sellers, it will link businesspeople who seek translators and language experts who want to teach students. That creates commerce in any language.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.