Opening the Language Learning Classroom to the World

Two days ago Babbel, one of the language learning communities I had previously covered here on Disrupt Education, turned 4. I remember that I found the project on Facebook, connected with one of the co-founders and got an invite to the closed beta. Back then I was still teaching languages “offline” for the most part but I immediately saw the benefit for my students and added Babbel to my list of tools to recommend. 


When I made the transition to primarily teach online, I still recommended to set up an account on either Babbel, Livemocha, busuu or all three of them. That used to rise eyebrows amongst my online teacher colleagues because why would I recommend a competing, free service to my paying students? Why wouldn’t they switch entirely to these new services? 

And if you look at the pricing, this argument is not completely unfounded. Private language tuition is usually charged by the hour and even if you decide to cut down the price, as you need to commute etc there is a limit to it. Back in 2008 it used to be around $25 per hour. For the same price a student would get several months of access to self-paced premium content. So why wouldn’t the student switch? 

One thing is clear to me. What language communities killed is the market for entry level language learners. There will always be some learners who prefer to take lessons in the brick and mortar classroom with a real teacher or via video conferencing on the Internet but the vast majority prefers the easy and frictionless access to online content. Besides the price point live lessons need to be planned and scheduled, then you or the teacher come in late, there are connection issues and so on. 

It also tends to slow down the learning process. If you are not taking one lesson per day with a teacher, I had students like this, your progress is defined by the number of lessons you take over the period of a month. 

That’s why the number one success factor of language learning communities are the learners themselves. People are social and the reason why they want to learn a language is to talk to other people. Babbel, Livemocha and busuu and others have this in their core. Only language learning communities are offering true “anywhere, anytime” learning with social interaction. 

Getting back to the beginning of this post that was and still is the reason why I recommend them to language learners. 

The key to have true breakthroughs in your ability to speak a language is just that: you need to speak = practice. The goal is to explain your ideas, wishes, goals, interests as good as in your native language. It’s not about asking “Where is the hotel?” “How much does this cost?” it’s about the same social interaction you would want to have on a cocktail party in your native language. 

As a teacher I can only do so much. Sure, I always adapt my lessons to the interests of my students and try to be a good conversation partner but in the end there are a lot of topics I don’t know much about. This is where a conversation partner with similar or matching interests comes in. And looking at the sheer number of users, I think all three communities are now north of 10 million, the chances to find at least one or two matching people are very high. 

And those conversation partners will never replace a teacher. In those conversations it is not about learning, it’s about practicing, using what you have learned so far during the lessons you take with your teacher. Sure, the conversation partners might correct each other but it won’t end in a real grammar lesson. That is and will remain the domain of the teacher. 

To bring this kind of practice into the classroom, something I suggested in my first post here on Big Think, Livemocha just launched a scholarship program for schools and colleges affected by budget cuts. Livemocha will donate $5 million in free and discounted foreign language services.

Picture: Teenagers outdoor from ShutterStock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.