Understand spoken language

Lingopolo becomes 100% free

Submitted by Hugh on 8 April 2017

I am excited and extremely pleased to announce that, as of today, Lingopolo becomes 100% free.

Previously there had been a monthly or annual membership subscription if you wanted to use Lingopolo. But no more; it is now 100% free.

Why? How, then, is Lingopolo going to make money?

A little bit of history

For the why, let me first explain a little bit of history and my original plans.

I first began Lingopolo in 2012 when I was in Thailand learning Thai. At that time, I thought I would like somewhere that I could put all my vocabulary where I could practice it. So, since I was a web developer, it made sense to put it online where anybody else could also use it to practice their Thai. In fact, even then, my aim was more than just a storage place for my vocabulary, what I really wanted to do was automate the sort of one-on-one language learning experience I had with my Thai teacher. That was and remains the underlying vision for the way in which Lingopolo functions.

In 2013 Lingopolo was progressing very nicely and I already had my first regular user, Raymond Dick, who I could see from the logs was loving the system. I had already thought about whether Lingopolo could become good enough to be commercially viable, and now I had my first customer but I had no way yet to charge them! So, I added the functionality to charge an annual membership, and even this didn't deter the enthusiastic Raymond who willingly coughed up the 99 EUR which I then asked. He was delighted with the site too, even in the much more primitive state of the software and content in those early days:

I can't thank you enough as it was your site that got my Thai language skills up to a passable level so quickly. I was frustrated with the other language tutors out there that concentrate on phrases which doesn't help when you don't understand the individual words. Learning first the words and compound words first and then moving on to phrases is the best way to go. Then the longer narratives for putting it all together. Thanks again.

I moved back to Belgium in 2013, and I was so pleased with how the system was developing that I decided at the end of 2013 to start adding a more commercially viable language, French, to the already developing Thai content. In 2016 I was also learning Dutch myself, so decided to add that, although Dutch was not part of the commercial plans: Thai and French were my commercial focus.

Now, most of this time I had a full-time job so the software development was only part-time and therefore very slow. Nonetheless, progress was steady, and I could see I was gradually creating something really special which had the potential to compete commercially with the best of language-learning tools on the market.

By April 2017 I was working in my day job only 4-days a week, and in my spare time leading a small team of part-timers on the developing of Lingopolo (one developing the software, two working on the French content, two working on the Thai content, and one on the Dutch content).

I had not yet tried to market Lingopolo, because I wanted to first focus 100% of my limited time on building a marketable product. At the start of 2017 I was beginning to think that later in the year the software would be good enough to start marketing. One of the big competitors which I eyed was the highly successful Babbel, who had only started in 2007 (5 years before Lingopolo), but which now has 450 employees and covers 14 languages.

The Wikipedia of the language-learning world

A nagging question though that I had been struggling with was: where is the Wikipedia of the language-learning world, the completely free, but also outrageously good-quality language-learning tool? You may well know Duolingo, the gold standard of online language-learning. Should Lingopolo try to become the Wikipedia of language-learning? And if it didn't, if Lingopolo really went head-to-head with the other big language players, what would happen when a 100% free, super high-quality language system finally arrived, as would surely one day happen. A lot of quality education materials are becoming available for free online, and systems like Duolingo are certainly a challenge for the paid language-learning providers. Nonetheless, I had been thinking that I would basically still compete in a directly commercial way with companies like Babbel.

This week though I have been at a conference and speaking with a number of people about how Lingopolo might be able to help them in their language-learning needs.

One of the people I spoke to was David; he works with refugees from Afghanistan who are stuck in Greece, currently unable to move north because of the EU political situation. They speak Persian, but they generally want to learn German or English to enable them to make a new life in Europe. They cannot afford things like Rosetta Stone, and there are thousands of these refugees, even tens of thousands. David said to me, "We need help...they would really appreciate it".

Another person I spoke to was Chris. He works with north-African refugees. This is a similar situation; Arabic and Persian-speaking people, wanting to learn French, Dutch, German, Spanish, English.

Now, I'm not even remotely in the position to pay myself for the development of all these languages.

And there's also the little technical problem of Lingopolo being able to work from any-language to any-language (at the moment it just works from English to the target language), but that could be fixed.

I thought about still developing French, German and English, say, for the commercial market, and allowing Lingopolo to be used for more non-commercial languages for free. I think though, that this would lead to a mess; it would be really odd to charge for learning English to French, but not for Persian to French, or Arabic to French.

I also started to think through more carefully how exactly it would work in a Wikipedia-style collaboration model. What if Lingopolo was completely free for people to use the site, and all the language content was completely free for anybody else to use (i.e. a Creative Commons licence)? This would mean that people would be willing to contribute to the site content for free, since they would know that the benefit was to be mutually helpful. People would be willing to add content from whatever language they spoke, in the knowledge that other people were adding content to the language they wanted to learn. Instead of me paying for a couple of content editors per language, I could soon have an army of content editors adding content in many languages for free.

How, then, is Lingopolo going to make money? 

There are many examples of highly-successful collaborative projects being financially sound. This doesn't mean they make money for profit, but it does mean they make enough money to be viable. The most obvious example is Wikipedia. In 2012-2013 it cost $42 million to run. OK, Lingopolo is not a Wikipedia. But consider an example in the online-teaching domain: Khan Acadamy. Khan Academy is a small nonprofit with a big mission: a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. They have around 150 employees and they serve more than 15 million learners each month with over 100,000 videos, articles, and exercises. Their 2015 Expenses were $24 million.

Both of these organisations get their money entirely from donations, and if Lingopolo could become a world-class language-teaching website, I think it would be able to garner financial support from donors.

The choice before Lingopolo

So, this is the choice I considered:

  • To continue to aim at becoming a successful global competitor to a commercial site like Babbel (a company with 450 employees and 14 languages), offering paid language-learning in well-served languages like French to comfortably well-off folk.
  • Or, to pivot the plan, and to try and become the world's best place to learn languages for free (maybe ending with 450 languages and 14 employees).

I have chosen for the latter; not because I am looking to run a large non-profit, but because the vision of being the place for all people everywhere to learn any language for free is bigger than the vision of running a large company.

Free vs. Paid

​I had
free primary school
free secondary school
free university.
I use
free operating system Linux
free web server Apache
free database MySQL
free programming language PHP
free Content Management System Drupal
free photos from Pixabay
free photo editing tool Gimp
free audio editor Audacity
free todo list Trello
free language-teaching idea from SIL.
What for?
To build a me-too paid language-learning system?
For languages already well-served with language-learning tools?
So myself in the richest 10% of the world
Can take money from others in the richest 10% of the world
To become one of the richest 1% of the world?

A collaborative effort

I'm preparing to build Lingopolo into the world's best system for anybody to learn any-language, from any-language, for free.

Whether I get anybody else to help or nobody else to help, I will still do this. If you just want to enjoy learning another language for free, that's great; 99% of users will probably be like that.

But maybe you want to help. Maybe you'd like to join this job of bringing world-class language learning for free to the world.

If so, please contact me. There are many things in which you could help:

  • if you are a native speaker of a particular language, and you would like to help working for free on adding the content for that language, let me know.
  • if you are a software developer, and you would like to give free development help, let me know.
  • if you would like to give financial support, please donate.