Welcome to our newest series: Meet The Experts, a deep dive into the masterminds behind Babbel, the app that transforms your world via language learning.
At Babbel, we aim to get our learners conversational as quickly as possible. We do this with the expertise of our linguists, who create content that prepare our learners for using their new language in real-life: speaking, listening and reading situations that are both familiar and useful, like ordering a coffee, checking into a hotel, or delivering a business presentation.
When Babbel was first launched in 2008, we were a pioneer in the online language learning industry. Soon after launching, Miriam Plieninger, currently our VP of Educational Strategy, came on board as an Editor to help create our first premium content for twenty language pairs that would be used to kick off our subscription model. With a background in digital publishing, Miriam soon rose to become our Head of Learning Content and in 2010 – back then as a one-woman-army plus freelancers – she began to build a dedicated team of diverse teachers and linguists, eventually residing over more than 150 language learning specialists.
I sat down with Miriam to learn more about what drives her and her team to build what has become the most successful language learning app, and what the future of digital learning holds.
Miriam, the press once called you “the teacher with millions of students”. Can you share a bit about your background and your current role at Babbel?
I joined Babbel in 2009, as employee no. 13, which in this case has proven to be a lucky number. The company was still really small and with my skill set in digital educational publishing, I built out our first fully home-made language courses – and then set up a dedicated team for this. Fast forward to 2020: As a Vice President of Educational Strategy, I still lead the Learning Content Teams (for many more languages and content types now), but also Learning Media (who drive podcast creation as well as other A/V learning formats) and Learner Experience Design (who partner closely with UX designers on learning features and journey creation, and are embedded in agile product development teams). I also work closely with everyone else in the business creating educational value: across Product & Engineering, in our B2B unit as well as in Marketing and Communications. I’m also involved when it comes to collaborations with external learning providers, and working with you to build an LX community in Berlin and beyond. LX Berlin is a group which we formed in 2019 along with Geoff Stead, Babbel’s CPO, to bring together the ed tech community and broaden the knowledge of Learning Experience topics.
What are some of the differences between creating content for an online learner who is learning through an app vs. an offline learner who is learning with a self-study book?
Offline learning includes learning with print & CD media, social formats like in-person classes/tutoring/tandems, and of course real-life immersion in a new language – ideally where it’s spoken natively. Most other formats would nowadays count as ‘online’: apps/browser based formats, online classes or video and audio streaming.
There are some main differences between self-study books and mobile apps:
When you started at Babbel there weren’t any other language learning apps or even sufficient online models. Were you skeptical if online language learning really works?
In my Master’s thesis, I had researched joy-of-use as a usability criterium for digital language learning (back then this meant CD-ROMs). I was well aware that online learning (any self-study, in fact) only works in the long run if it’s joyful. This is still one of our biggest challenges at Babbel, to bring more new learners into a regular learning pattern after their initial few weeks with the app. The learners who’ve created a habit stay active for a very long time, and report learning success to us. I’m confident that online learning works, but I want to make it work for more learners and instill even more joy into the app.
We are currently experimenting with Live online group classes to Babbel, so that learners who are extra eager can add to their learner journey with human-to-human learning on top of self-study.
Language learning is designed to empower communication between humans. But now machine translations seem to become smarter by the day. Is language learning even needed anymore?
For transactional communication types (booking a hotel room, giving taxi directions etc.): No (it’s nice, but not necessary). For conversational communication: Yes, absolutely. Humans have the urge to connect to other humans, and conversation is our main tool for this. Learning a new language opens doors to interact with people on a much deeper level. And this is also true for early beginners – which everyone knows who got out a sentence in a new language, and earned a smile or maybe even understood the reply!
At Babbel, the courses are designed by real teachers and language experts. How do they collaborate with the Product & Engineering teams to create the app?
All of Babbel’s learning content creators are learning experts, and all editors and voice-overs are native speakers of the respective languages. They mostly work with data analysts to understand learner behavior in the content, as well as with quality and release managers to get the content in front of learners in the first place. The content creators also work with user researchers to test new concepts, with UX writing and UX design to align on copy and visuals, with Product Managers and Engineers on embedding content in features … and they advise the wider business on educational questions.
Babbel recently also saw the addition of podcasts and other learning media & features. Why is it important to add these experiences to the portfolio, and how do they tie into the curriculum of the language learning app?
Learners have different needs, because learners are different. Sometimes learning through listening (a podcast) is just what you need (e.g. hands-free while jogging or cooking). Sometimes you just want to do something quick (one of our new in-app games), sometimes you want to have a focused session (a whole learning unit in a course). Sometimes you would rather listen to music (Babbel Mixtapes playlist). Or meet other learners and be guided by a human teacher (Babbel Live). We are well aware that learners will use a patchwork of different learning methods anyways, and we are building a learning ecosystem to accommodate this.
2020 saw millions of people turning to online learning. What did you see and learn at Babbel and what does this mean for the future?
Especially in the first international lockdown phase between March and June we saw huge spikes in both learner registrations and learning activity. We were thrilled to see that those learners who had engaged with Babbel regularly then (with more time on their hands and less distractions than usual) have built good learning patterns and continue to stay engaged going forward. We were also really happy with how well our free Babbel offer to students was adopted, not having focused on teenagers and young adults as a target group before. For the future this means: doubling down on easing learners into their learner journey so that they can form a healthy habit, and catering to a wider learner group.
A footnote: As a mother of a primary school kid I see a huge gap in the digital learning revolution in adult education vs. schools.
Thank you for your time, Miriam!
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