Duolingo vs. WhatsApp: Berlin startup Tandem has app that lets you chat with natives to learn a new language
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Tandem homepage screenshot

Tandem’s video-calling-and-chat app is finally bringing the foreign pen pal concept into the digital age with over 100 tongues and 11 sign languages

People generally hate learning foreign languages. Outside of the aspiring polyglots, it’s difficult for one to work through a textbook to memorize vocab and new grammar rules, while on the other speaking in a broken and slow fashion can be humbling or even humiliating. The latter is considered critical to really embed a new tongue’s infrastructure onto the mind, meaning you often just have to suck it up and break your teeth. Tandem is an app that allows that conversation to happen in a private, comfortable way. It takes the old pen pal concept and digitizes it with video and chat. By pairing learners with native speakers, it integrates the chat of WhatsApp into the language learning of Duolingo.

So how does someone finally become inspired to launch such an interface?

CEO and co-founder of Tandem, tells Geektime that it was his experience on a trip to Sweden when he was a student that led him to create this app.

“I wanted to find a Tandem partner to practice my Swedish with, but people just wanted to speak to me in English and I didn’t learn anything!” he says, explaining that, “The Tandem app makes it easy to find a partner through your mobile and brings language exchange to everyone, anytime, anyplace. I wish it had been around during my student days!”

It now boasts over 1 million members, 15 million monthly chats and over 10,000 hours of calls per month. They have the luxury of being able to offer over 100 languages and over 2,500 language combinations because if any given user has a language to offer, it becomes an option to learn. Tandem’s development team merely needs to support the typeface of a given language and virtually any dialect can be used for two-way conversations.

At this point, they haven’t noticed that any particular language community has really taken to the app in comparison to anyone else. It might still be too early for that, then again it’s possible they have managed to build something with widespread appeal.

Tandem screenshots (Google Play)

“This isn’t something we’ve noticed – as long as there is at least one speaker of a language, you will always be able to find someone to practice with,” Aschentrup tells Geektime. “The top languages for English native speakers are Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean and Chinese.”

They’re backed by Atlantic Labs, Faber Ventures, RubyLight, and lastly by Hannover Beteiligungsfonds from Aschentrup’s native Hannover. So far, they have raised nearly $3 million.

Another advantage Tandem has versus other language-learning platforms, methods, tactics, books, what have you, is that you can also apply it to visual languages. Tandem’s creators recognized its applicability to the deaf early on, creating a conduit for fostering multilingual signers.

“We launched 11 sign languages in January and American Sign Language is already the 10th most popular language for English speakers!” exclaims Aschentrup, indicating that interest in signing is picking up among the hearing-abled. That could mean Tandem’s private, visual platform is offering easy access to a skill long-sought by some language learners. Another possibility is that the chance presents itself to learners who had never given serious thought to learning signs before, perhaps because it was considered a difficult-to-access skill.

The chats are in real time and any delay is because of real people on the other end of the chat thinking through an answer or delaying responses for reasons typical of two-way phone messages. There was no indication people were yet using Tandem as a dating funnel, but given some have used Google Translate to communicate with lovers across languages, it’s not a crazy notion.

The social element here might have the potential to blow up as its own network by breaking down barriers that kept different language communities separate. Tandem’s success might get people to rethink their linguistic silos, or signal to other social networks that breaking down those barriers in order to meet new people might just boost their own engagement numbers.

The Tandem team with Co-Founder and CEO Arnd Aschentrup seated in the middle of the couch (tandem.com)

With the recent boom in chatbot technology, it seemed appropriate to ask if the company considered a bot option for users. As language-learning enthusiasts could probably predict, bots aren’t at the point that they can fully nail down the natural flow of conversation, much less be up-to-date with vernacular. Never mind the need to express opinions.

“We strongly believe that learning with actual humans is much more fun, personal and effective. A big part of a language exchange is making friends all around the world.”

But it is a fair question when it comes to getting down some basic, mechanical skills in verb conjugation or syntax. Aschentrup says Tandem is considering how bots might augment the social nature of the app.

“The potential for bots, in our view, is to act in the role of a Tandem coach, [which] guides and helps both Tandem partners through their learning journey, e.g. to practice the right things and work together effectively.”

However one of the values of chatting with an actual person is that it provides the opportunity to encounter elements of speech like slang. This can be both advantageous to new learners as well as an obstacle. For sure a fluent speaker will need to be down with new catchphrases and the tone that goes along with certain lingo, but it can be confusing if you are getting bombarded with abbreviations or internet code or deliberately wrong grammar common when speakers coin new slang.

Aschentrup says it’s all about balance. Does Tandem tell the native speakers to keep it clean and proper when chatting it up with newbies?

“What’s more important – speaking naturally or speaking perfectly? Our members are free to practice however they like, so long as the community remains respectful and positive. We personally feel slang and idioms are one of the best parts of learning a language.”

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