Learning Legion

Interview with busuu Languages Education Director, Oula Akiki

I recently had an interview with a Oula Akiki, Education Director at a busuu, a company that offers an array of digital language learning curricula and applications.

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Here are some questions and her answers.

How did you get started in the language learning field?

I majored in modern languages, linguistics and translation at university. I’ve always been interested in languages. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t learning a second or third language. I went to the same business school as Bernhard amp; Adrian the busuu co-founders. I met them at an event and we immediately shared a common interest in languages. They were talking about their ideas for busuu, and I was immediately interested in the product. From my interest in linguistics, I wanted to move away from the traditional way of doing things and become more involved in product innovation. I joined busuu in January 2011 after graduating from business school in Madrid. I moved with the company from Madrid to London a year ago.

How did busuu start?

Bernhard Niesner and Adrian Hilti founded busuu in Madrid, where it was an official UNESCO International Year of Languages project in 2008. The company is named after the endangered Busuu language of Cameroon. According to an ethnological study from the 1980’s, Busuu is spoken by only 8 people. We went to Cameroon to track down those 8 people and made a video about our experience here!

Language learning technology is a saturated field. What makes busuu unique? How does it compare to other offerings in the market like Rosetta Stone, Livemocha, Duolingo…?

We create a good learning experience where we are trying to offer everything you need to complete your learning. We combine the content with a cross-platform solution so you can learn on mobile or on the web – the program is flexible to your needs. We complement that with our unique community –  it’s a friendly, helpful community where you can speak to native lanugage speakers. So you can learn anywhere on any device. You can practice with the commmunity who bring the conversational element that is so important when learning language. Language is about interacting with others and learning about other cultures is a part of that.  Learning the language is one thing, putting it into practice is another. We offer one solution that is practical, adaptable and fun to use. busuu has a gamified environment that makes the learning fun and engaging. It has nothing to do with your language book or your language class. The people in the community are more relevant as they live in the country whose language your learning. It’s an opportunity to learn and engage in a way you’d never learn with a book.

What’s the busuu approach?

We teach you relevant vocabulary, that you need in every day life. We break down the course content into smaller contexts that are easier to assimilate when you’re learning language. Then, put it into sentences. You’re going to find that conversation to be useful in every day life. We take useful vocabulary and useful conversation modes that are bundled into topics based on your needs and the situations when you need to use them.

Learning a language is a rewarding yet arduous process. What is your advice for those learning a language now or considering it?

It can be challenging, like anything new that you learn, but having regular conversations with people makes it more fun and less stressful. We’ve built a useful process to learn and remember language as well as to practice it. You have the cultural exchange happening as well. Even if you are in the early stages, you can still practice by talking to native speakers. People find out that they know more than they think they do, and that then inspires their confidence to continue learning. Keep practicing your language exercises. Like any exercise, a bit of training here and a bit of training there is still very helpful.

Is there anything you can reveal to us about the future of busuu?

Stay tuned, we have some exciting things coming in early 2014.

What about language learning and acquisition in general?

People are learning on different devices, and we find language learning is suited to a multi-device lifestyle.  We base our content creation on user behaviour and what we know is more important to them. People learning want stats, dashboard. It’s more personalized and need-driven. In general, it’s more intelligent and data-driven. What we learn from learning habits and how people interact wtih content, so we can refine and make it better.

Rosetta Stone, for instance, backs the Endangered Languages project, is busuu involved in any causes our readers should know about and get involved with?

Given we are named after an endangered language, we do support this issue as a company. We run an annual program called Learn2Help, to help educate children in Cameroon with the ultimate goal of building a classroom to support a local school. In December, the 35 million strong busuu community will help others to learn through its own language learning. As busuu users achieve completed lessons, the company will contribute to the Cameroon Association for the Protection and Education of the Child (CAPEC) to buy school supplies and furniture. With enough language learning activity on the website and on busuu’s mobile apps, busuu will reach our ultimate goal  of building an entire classroom for children in Cameroon.

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