What can you accomplish in roughly 200 hours?


You could squeeze in all of The Wire (60 hours), The Sopranos (72 hours), Breaking Bad (47 hours), and Twin Peaks (23 hours). You could fly from London to Sydney and back five times (21 hours each way). You could tackle the audiobook recordings of War and Peace (72 hours), Infinite Jest (56 hours), and Les Miserables (58 hours).

Or you could use that time to teach yourself a new language. Now, thanks to Lingvist--a startup from Estonia--you can use a mathematically-optimized approach to language acquisition that will have you learning a new language in around 200 hours. The first language on offer are French, which are now in private beta, and Spanish and English are currently in the works. The company plans on adding additional languages later this year.

By using big data analysis, Lingvist aims to help people learn languages up to ten times faster than traditional teaching methods. One approach is by focusing on ‘the language you really need to learn’ - meaning the most frequently used words in a given language. Lingvist analyzes immense amounts of text to determine which words should be prioritized in the learning process. It’s the sort of purely pragmatic approach that many language learners have been waiting for: rather than studying textbook chapters full of rarely-used vocabulary, students learn words that they’ll actually hear in the language they’re studying, which helps them become proficient quicker.

Lingvist also focuses on optimizing repetition to enhance memory. If students repeat the vocabulary too few times, they won’t remember the words. But they can also waste a ton of time with over repetition. Does it really take twenty-five times of repeating ‘almuerzo’ to remember that it means ‘lunch’? For most people, probably not. And Lingvist will help maximize students’ time by letting them know exactly how many times they should repeat ‘almuerzo.’

Unlike some of the competitors in this space--companies like Rosetta Stone, Rocket Languages, and a handful of others--Lingvist doesn’t offer speech recognition. But also unlike those companies, Lingvist offers highly personalized, adaptive learning. As Community Manager Ave Habakuk explains, “To understand the capabilities of a learner, the program records all the actions the user does on the platform. This way, over time, it can map the memory profiles of the user and optimize the repetition patterns, which saves a lot of time for the learner.” Many of the competing digital learning services are still applying old textbook methods to teaching; as Habakuk notes, “they are not making use of the fact that the student is learning on a device that has computational power.” By offering a service that responds directly to each student’s needs, Lingvist helps people avoid the unnecessary exercises that eat up so much time.

And it seems like the company is in a good position to catch up to some of their better-known competitors. Earlier this week, TechStars London announced that Lingvist was one of eleven startups (out of approximately 1500 applicants) selected to join the London-based accelerator program. The company is still exploring different monetization methods in both B2C and B2B markets.

Of course there’s still a big advantage to taking years of language classes. If you want to be truly fluent, you have to put in the long, hard hours to master all of those verb conjugations, tricky idioms, obscure cultural references, and more.

But for casual learners who can’t dedicate years of their life to studying a new language, Lingvist could be the perfect solution. Their users will learn enough to communicate in and understand a new language, while not having to juggle their commitments to fit in time-intensive courses.

In a world of busy schedules and miniscule attention spans, Lingvist makes a lot of sense. Soon, there won’t be any excuse for the people that continually say, “I’d really love to learn a new language...if only I could find the time.”

Ben Norris is the Founder / CEO of The Peddle, a Helsinki-based company that provides native English language services to startups across the Nordic and Baltic regions. He moonlights as a contributor to ArcticStartup.

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