I remember my constant frustration when, years into high school Spanish, I was still unable to communicate with native speakers. Sure, my grammar skills looked great on paper, and I aced the vocabulary sections on my exams. I was able to respond perfectly to my teacher in a classroom setting, but when dropped into an everyday conversation with a Spanish speaker, I was not able to hold my own. I admit that one of the reasons I took up Italian in college was general annoyance with my lack of progress in Spanish. My experience cuts to the heart of the most challenging aspect of language-learning: in order to become fluent, you must practice. Not just practice, but have real conversations with native speakers. Living in a notoriously monolingual country, finding language partners can be a hassle.
Enter Verbling, the Y Combinator-backed company that connects language learners around the world. The process is amazingly simple. After a quick sign-up on their website and a click of a button, you are paired with a native speaker of the language you want to learn, who in turn, wants to learn your language. A timer counts down five minutes per language, but the conversation can be extended for as long as the pairs would like by pressing a “+10 minute” button. Essentially, Verbling is putting language immersion online.
Co-founders Mikael Bernstein and Jacob Jolis dreamt up Verbling when the technology to automatically connect people online — think ChatRoulette or Omegle — became popular. “We saw a way to combine that with language learning,” Mikael said, “it is difficult to find language partners, and then there is this idea that you can connect people instantly. Put those things together and you have Verbling.” It helps that Mikael and Jacob are particularly attuned to the needs of the language learner. Both hail from Sweden originally, and between the two they speak English, Swedish (“a great language!”), Russian, German, French, and Spanish. They understand the needs of a language learner and understand the solution.
In order to work on Verbling, Mikael and Jacob dropped out of Stanford in 2011, which was a risky move, but according to them the experience has been “definitely worth it.” Recently they moved to a new office in San Francisco and brought Gustav Rydstedt — who also happens to be a Swedish National Programming Champion — on board. Gustav already has a bachelor’s and master’s in computer science and quit his Ph.D. for Verbling. “So to an extent we’re all dropouts,” Mikael joked, “although Gustav has a few more degrees than we do.”
Verbling has big plans in the pipeline. After raising $1 million last year, they are hard at work to expand the site’s capabilities and offerings, and it’s clear that they are committed to providing the best service possible. While it’s difficult for a lot of startups to get feedback from users, Verbling has this mechanism built into their product. They recently launched a new version of the site, and one of the first things they did was go onto Verbling to get direct feedback from users around the world—no doubt their language aptitude came in handy here!
Though only English/Spanish pairs are available right now, it is Verbling’s goal to offer more language pairings. Signups are now available for the ten most popular, including Arabic, French, Chinese, and German. Other upcoming features were determined by listening to the user base. For example, partner pairings are currently random, but Verbling discovered that people want the ability to reconnect with each other. “People have these wonderful conversations but getting paired up and then disappearing—having this ephemeral experience isn’t enough, they want to have a rich friendship on the site,” Mikael said. “So that is something we’re in the process of building.” Mikael emphasized that Verbling is not a website that you only use once or twice, as becoming fluent is a long process. In order to facilitate this, other new features will include a progress page where people can set goals for themselves and earn badges for continuing their language education.
Mikael shared one particular anecdote that highlights both the power Verbling has to enhance cultural education, as well as the biggest challenge the company faces. Shortly after Verbling launched they were featured on Alarabiya, the second largest TV network in the Middle East. They saw signups for English/Arabic skyrocket, and opened the site for trial runs for a few hours. According to Mikael, hearing people from Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia describe their experiences with protests in their respective countries made for a very powerful conversation, “When you exchange languages you also exchange ideas and learn about other people’s values.” While there may be hundreds or thousands of Arabic (or Japanese or Lativan…) speakers wanting to learn English, the number of English speakers eager to practice Arabic is likely a lot lower. These imbalances combined with potentially different time zones present a barrier to growing the service, though they have not hindered Verbling’s success.
Looking back, I have no doubt that my Spanish skills would have improved if I had practiced more frequently with a language partner. However, until recently there was no easy access to these types of resources. Jacob hit the nail on the head when he described Verbling’s solution to this plight: “Everybody who has ever learned a language has either become fluent by talking to native speakers, or failed to become fluent because of lack of access to native speakers. We’re reshaping the landscape of language education.”
At this point Mikael interjects, “We’re also a fun company to work with!”
Every language teacher I’ve had has emphasized the importance of practice. I can easily imagine educators using Verbling as a homework assignment—in which case I can also imagine students reaching for the “+10” button, not wanting the conversation to end.