Visit VivaLing’s website and you will immediately notice images of happy children holding up tablets and computer screens depicting smiling adults – showcasing the company’s approach to the teacher-student relationship. It’s not uncommon imagery where elearning and educational initiatives are concerned, but in this case it rings especially true.
“We chose a visual that reflects our philosophy in terms of language learning,” Bernard Golstein, VivaLing’s CEO and co-founder, tells Tech in Asia. “We are about happiness of learning, engagement, motivation, communication above all. We want to make an impact by combining learning convenience with learning effectiveness.”
The Singapore-based startup specializes in language teaching through online video chat (it currently teaches English, Mandarin, French, and Spanish). Pupils can sign up through the website and are then introduced to one of the language coaches working with VivaLing from anywhere in the world. While plenty of online language teacher marketplaces work in a similar fashion, the novelty of this approach has to do with the student demographic it’s going after: VivaLing believes language learning should start as early in childhood as possible, with children as young as three years old encouraged to sign up.
“A huge amount of money, time, and energy is spent by adults trying to learn languages but, unfortunately, it’s too late,” Golstein says. “Some adults amongst us are fortunate [in that] they are more talented than others but this varies greatly. With children it’s different; all children have this talent in them. If we want to make a difference, an impact, we have to take care of this while the learners are still young.”
While this may not bode well for this writer’s attempts at Mandarin, it’s difficult to argue with the position that children absorb a new language much more quickly and easily, just like any new knowledge – provided you can get them interested enough. VivaLing takes care of that by throwing away the textbook and adapting the lesson to each individual pupil. “There is one fundamental thing about language learning; it has to be customized,” Golstein explains. “It has to be made relevant.”
Engaging and retaining
When the prospective pupil’s parents sign up to VivaLing’s website, they work with the company to create a profile for him/her. Is the child sociable or shy? What are the child’s favorite things? What does the child enjoy doing? All this information is then fed to the language coach and used in the lesson in order to pique the pupil’s interest. “When the session starts, the first things the children see are meaningful to them,” Golstein says. If the child likes Star Wars, they will talk about Star Wars. If the child likes football, or princesses, that [will be the subject of conversation].”
To illustrate, Golstein shows a recorded session where an English teacher (an American expat in Europe) is talking to a French boy living in Asia. The teacher has been informed that the boy likes pirates and has themed her session accordingly, speaking English peppered with pirate lingo and even wearing an eyepatch while she talks about treasure and swordfights.
The results are immediate; the child is looking intently as the teacher counts her “gold” in front of the camera, and then begins to respond to her questions – in English. This is a pupil that just recently, according to Golstein, was not responding at all to his classes and had had all sorts of disciplinary issues. But by engaging him on a level he finds exciting, the coach actually gets him to chat in the language he is supposed to learn. “I think he learned more during that first session with us than in his entire [school] year,” Golstein muses.
Just like the content of the session, the duration and frequency of the sessions are adapted to each student. A session for a child of three to five years old might last about 15 minutes, while a preteen or teen student’s session can last about an hour. Most students take two sessions per week and are given time to revise before the next session by reviewing video of the last one.
Parents are encouraged not to attend the sessions after the first time when the students are over five years old. The company’s approach seems to make sure that no supervision is needed; if it is, the coach is not doing a good enough job. “Insubordinate children are only children whose attention the coach has not been able to catch,” Golstein says. “So we take it as potential for improvement on our side. Honestly, we do not have insubordinate children. Children from age six do not even need their parents to start the session – they can do it by themselves.”
Learning with science
VivaLing’s method isn’t a fluke either. The company is in collaboration with no less than four universities around the world (which it prefers not to identify at the moment) in the fields of child language acquisition and communication. One of its coaches, a Chinese person living in Paris, is doing his PhD on VivaLing itself. “We try to embed the latest advances of language learning sciences plus technology in our method,” Golstein explains. The company even hopes to gather sufficient data from its various sessions to be able to contribute to research about language learning in a meaningful way.
Founded in November 2013 by Golstein and Wang Zihan, VivaLing is still relatively young in its field. Even so, it is currently working with language coaches (who work with the company on a freelance basis) of four different languages across 10 countries. VivaLing selects the coaches on the merits of their language teaching credentials, of course, but also takes into account their overall personality and skills.
“We interview about 100 people per month and we keep a very small percentage of those we interview,” Golstein says. “And after that we train them. There is initial training and there is continuous training, in order to create our coach community. For us the talent and skills of our coaches are key to our success. We are only as good as our coaches are, and that is a very important aspect on which we differ from other well-funded other ventures such as marketplaces.”
Golstein takes care to denote what he views as the difference between VivaLing and language learning marketplaces. “We are not a marketplace; we are an academy,” he says. “We spend a lot of time recruiting, training our teachers, and monitoring the quality. [With regards the parents], we talk to them, we advise them, we notify them about their children’s progress. And we believe that the added value we provide is essential to what we want to do.”
Considering VivaLing’s approach to customized sessions and child engagement, it’s not surprising that the company doesn’t really believe in traditional metrics to track student progress. The goal is not to prepare a child for exams, but to immerse and communicate. Although even then, VivaLing has noticed that students who do well in their online sessions can transfer that progress to the classroom.
“Everyone has a different objective, a different starting level, and finding the right metric is not always easy,” Golstein says. “The one thing we measure systematically is the child’s mood at the start and at the end of the session.” There are five smiley icons representing the different moods the child can go through; frustration, boredom, indifference, happiness, excitement. “We do that because engagement is one of the most important language acquisition drivers,” he adds.
Since commencing full time operations in July 2014, the company has been growing steadily and has students in 12 countries, with the number of sessions so far in the “several thousands” according to Golstein. And just yesterday, VivaLing announced a new seed round funding exceeding S$500,000 (US$367,000). The extra funding, coming from angel investments, will allow the company to enhance the learning experience it offers and expand within and out of Singapore.
“The big next step for us is our formal entry in the Singapore mass market,” Golstein explains. The company will be participating in The Kidz Academy, a long-running education exhibition taking place at Suntec City, Singapore in June, where it aims to increase its visibility. “Obviously the value proposition has to be finetuned, because we know [how much emphasis Singapore places in marks and scores] and one cannot say that English or Mandarin are foreign languages here,” Golstein adds. “But there is a lot to do in Singapore and at the same time [it is] a stepping stone for China.”
VivaLing will be needing a lot more resources to embark in its Chinese excursion, but Golstein and Wang feel it’s worth it. “What we can do in terms of business [in China] is huge, what we can make in terms of impact is even greater,” Golstein points out.