Last week I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Micah Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of LanguageZen.com.
Language Zen is a platform that has been proven to teach an entire semester of college Spanish in only 25 hours. According to Micah, their approach is more effective than both Duolingo and Rosetta Stone.
In addition to Language Zen, Micah has a history of making an impact through the various industries where he has worked. Below in our interview, he shares some of what he has learned along his journey to where he is today.
You can listen to the full audio right here, or read selected excerpts of our conversation below.
Jeffrey: Tell me a little bit more about your background.
Micah: Yeah, no problem at all. Myself, as well as everyone else on the team, had to learn languages independently. So that, personally, for me, was when I was in Israel between high school and college and I kind of learned the language from scratch there. Everyone else in the team has also gone through experiences, through learning languages independently as adults. I actually speak the least languages on the team, at two; everybody else is quad and penta-lingual.
M: And…yeah, we found that it was a very frustrating experience going through the traditional methodology. That even if a web programmer and mobile app could make it fun through having more gamification, or better UX, it was still…they all kind of suffered from the same problem: they put every user through the exact same kind of static linear curriculum. You learn the exact same things in the exact same ways as somebody else.
M: Which is particularly frustrating if you come in as an intermediate, for example, and you know some parts of the language, but the program, you know, assigns something kind of arbitrary to what they think an intermediate knows or doesn’t know.
M: And it also, you know, teaches irrelevant stuff. I ended up learning…before going to Israel I learned a little bit of Hebrew through Rosetta Stone and came in knowing like “the elephant is wet,” to start out with. And everybody has…like “where is the library?” and “The mouse is under the table” stories, you know. And so, one thing that we tried to do with Language Zen was to make it a lot more relevant. So, for the main course, we actually data mine real conversation. From, like, TV transcripts to teach you what we also hear and use in the real world. Professionally, I graduated from USC in California, in International Relations and Entrepreneurship. Previously, I founded and ran a bike company, which included importing. And I was in the solar energy industry for about a year and a half, running the stuff there with a commercial solar installer. And I started this with my partner about almost three years ago.
J: Wow, those are very different industries to jump between.
M: They are.
J: And, was there any connection to them, or reason you picked them?
M: If they did well, they wouldn’t make the world a worse place, generally. You know, I generally like working in industries that have some sort of net positive impact. And, partially, that is so that I can be focused entirely on the business and not really worry about things more existentially, or ethically.
M: But, in general, it was just kind of seeing opportunities and seeing areas where things could be done much better. I don’t really like the idea of just going in and saying “oh, this is a really hot industry. What can I do?” It’s more: “Is there a solution I see for a problem that I know is real?” And that has sort of been the common thread between them and it has been a little bit industry agnostic.
J: Here is another question for you: as you have been doing all this, how do you consistently deliver? Is there something you do to keep yourself productive? Because I know we all go through slumps. So, do you go through slumps or do you avoid them somehow?
M: I go through slumps, too. I try to avoid them and make them as short as they can be, but I have slumps as well. Particularly as we are a distributed team, so we are not in an office together, for example, to have that type of just momentum of seeing your coworkers in person. Working closely with other folks in a team is important, you know, I talk with my partner and co-founder multiple times a day throughout the day, even though we are in different time zones and areas, as well as with the other team members. Also, for myself, I found that… if there is a period of not feeling motivated, trying to understand where it is coming from and trying to find where …ways around it, essentially. You know, sometimes I was finding thinking about the big goal, you know. Where will we be a year from now, or two years from now, is sort of what it took to kind of be putting in these 12 hour days… which is pretty normal for startups.
M: If, at a certain point it was looking, ok, well, let’s focus more on the specific deliverables that we could be doing in the next week, or the next day. And that was what kind of kept it exciting. And also breaking things up. I’m a big fan of…very specifically, I’m a big fan of “Pomodoro time” or doing 25 minutes work sessions mixed with 5 minutes breaks…then , you know, doing something physical, like working out or taking care of physical chores.
J: That is a way of doing it. I think, you know, that’s a good approach because you have different tools in your arsenal. Because it is going to depend on the day, you have to… if you want to succeed at that level consistently, than you can’t really afford to let yourself get distracted. So, I like how you have different ways to pull yourself back into the game.
J: Ok. We’ve got a couple more minutes here. If we come back to Language Zen, obviously you feel this can help make the world a better place. You’ve already started with Spanish, I believe. What other languages do you have coming next?
M: So, we are going to be having English. That’s a pretty high priority for us. Initially for Spanish speakers, but then scaling it from there. And, in addition, we are wanting to hit the languages that are high priority in the English speaking markets, to be able to get French out the door and, eventually, focus on East Asia languages. So, I know it’s not a one language answer, but now that we have demonstrated what we are able to do on the Spanish, it is pretty exciting for us to be able to scale to additional languages as rapidly as funding allows.
J: So, I kind of poked around the site a little bit and I saw that you can learn from audio and kind of some different approaches. Is your focus to get people conversational, or is it also to learn to read and write the different languages?
M: So, there is a reading and writing component. You know, we let people answer questions in different ways, either through speaking it, or writing, or a mixture of the two. We focus, you know, on…we largely focus on listening comprehension, as well as some reading comprehension, but ultimately, the biggest…where we want to be and how we’ve designed the system is that through using Language Zen… faster than any other method, we’ll be able to get you to the point where you can have real conversations with people and learn organically. The fact is there is no substitution for being in the country you want to be in and talking to people entirely in the language you are wanting to learn. We need to get to a certain level to be able to have these experiences and it’s our job to get you as quickly as possible to where you can.
J: So, what’s the time frame if someone sat down to do this every day, they could get to that point where they can have some basic conversations, ask for directions in a country?
M: So, we’ve been proven to actually be able to teach an entire semester towards the college level Spanish in only 25 hours. So, the time invested…so if it’s, let’s say asking basic directions we have specialized courses on those types of subjects. So, like travel essentials and getting around and ordering at a restaurant. You know, those are all, actually, specialized areas that we have. The main course is based off of conversational language through the conversational data mining, but besides that, it comes to the level of proficiency you want. I’ve been able to get around with only investing about 5 or 10 hours for the basics and it’s not a problem at all. If you want to get to the point where you can have real conversations and relationships, you’ll be wanting to put in more time than that, but a lot less than you would with any other method.
J: That’s encouraging, because I know people are busy. I know myself am busy as well. I have another question, out of curiosity. You mentioned moving to East Asian languages eventually. Do you think the methods you are using for the more English, Spanish, French type languages for reading and writing, do you think that is going to translate well, or are you going to have to re-do your approach?
M: There are definitely things we are going to need to change for East Asian languages. So, for example, we are going to be inputting the language through pinyin and most likely having the reading component with traditional characters. I think that with East Asian, with Chinese, for Mandarin in particular, we’re going to be focusing more on the conversational side and less with the reading just because there is much more of a differentiation unlike, you know, alphabetic language. Reading doesn’t help you speak better, while…you can’t, transliterate a word and get a meaning from it. And so, you know, people will be able to put in their answers through pinyin and we are going to be working with simplified standard Chinese, but our focus will be more on the conversational side. So, for example, we’re going to have additional exercises with tonality, where you are going to hear things which would sound the same, except for the tone and to be able to train our users to be able to differentiate from that, effectively.
J: Nice. I think that makes sense. I’ve studied a little bit of Mandarin which is why I asked. So, I am looking forward to that. But, so far, I like what I’ve seen. I’m looking forward to trying it out myself with Spanish. Can I wrap up this way, and ask if you have something you can share with the Life In Charge readers in terms of a discount code or a way to get started? Where do they go? All that?
M: Yes, so you go to LanguageZen.com and I’ll make up a discount code for you to be able to share with your users, to get about 20% off. The premium membership that can be open for a couple months after you do the broadcast.
J: Ok, great! I’ll get that from you and add it to the post when I put out the audio. Anything else you want to end with? Any other place that people can contact you on Twitter, Facebook etc?
M: Yeah! We are active on our Facebook. On our website itself, if you click the feedback button it’ll be coming into your mailbox and it’ll be coming into the team. And I always love to hear from other language learners, people who are interested in what we are doing and I’m always hoping for people’s feedback.
J: Ok, well, I really appreciate your time Micah. I’ll let you go. I’m looking forward to following Language Zen as it grows and adds more languages.
J: Alright, take care.
Thanks for reading this interview! Hopefully you enjoyed it and learned something new. If you are interested in learning Spanish, definitely go check out Language Zen.
Who else would you like me to interview? What questions should I ask? Leave a comment below!