Prior to Babbel, Markus Witte was worked in various positions at Native Instruments, a leading manufacturer of music software, where he had the responsibility for the development of online marketing and web infrastructure. He started his career in 1998 as a lecturer at New York University, after almost two years working as a research assistant at the Institute for Cultural Studies of the Humboldt University in Berlin.
1) How did you come up with the idea of Babbel?
Actually, our first idea wasn’t about language learning at all. Prior to Babbel, all of the co-founders worked in the music technology space – we initially wanted to do something in that direction.
It just so happened that one of us was trying to learn Spanish at the time. Naturally, he turned to the internet, but was surprised to find that there just weren’t any viable ways to learn a language online. So we created one.
We started out with that user perspective back in 2007, and it’s still a key part of our approach today.
2) How does Babbel differ to other language learning applications?
Babbel has a unique approach to getting people conversational as soon as possible. And right from the very first lesson, we encourage them to communicate in their new language.
For us, it’s the didactical know-how of over 100 language teachers, linguists and education specialists – rather than crowdsourced or machine-generated content – that combines with modern technology to help people learn so successfully.
These experts create every course individually, tailoring each one to the native language of the learner. That means that our Italian course for Spanish speakers is different from our Italian course for English speakers. A Spaniard, after all, would have little trouble grasping the basics of Italian grammar. An American, on the other hand, may benefit from explicit explanations for things like word-order, since it’s so different in English. This is how we make sure you do not have to learn what you already know and furthermore use your knowledge as an asset.
Giving Spanish speakers and English speakers different courses, rather than translating the same one, seems an obvious solution then. What’s surprising is that we seem to be the only ones doing it.
3) Why is learning a language still important despite smartphones becoming a personal translator?
Even the best translation software can’t replace people’s desire to learn a new language. Learning a language isn’t just about communicating information – it’s about understanding and connecting with people on a deeper level. Speaking through a device is never going to be the same as having a proper face-to-face conversation.
Our customers in particular learn for their own pleasure – they’re self-motivated. If you want to survive a short business trip, or respond to an email, a translator might suffice. When you’re learning a language for the sheer joy of it, a translator just isn’t an alternative. If anything, the fact that more people will expose themselves to foreign languages will fuel the desire for learning them.
4) How long does it take to learn a language with Babbel?
It’s hard to give an exact number here – at what point can you really claim to have ‘learned’ a language? What we do very well, however, is to get people speaking and using their new language right away.
In fact, we asked our users about this very recently: in a survey of nearly 45,000 people, 73% said that they’d feel comfortable enough to have a short conversation in their new language after learning with Babbel for less than five hours.
They key to learning successfully, as with many things, is “little and often”. If you set out to cram as much knowledge in as fast as you can, you’ll probably end up frustrated. If you can set aside just ten to fifteen minutes per day, however, you’ll be surprised by how much you learn and how fast.
5) What advice would you give to people who want to start a business?
There’s one piece of advice that I’d give to anyone who wants to start a business: make it matter.
You’ve got to do something that brings real benefit to real people. Starting a business is hard, and not something that I recommend anyone does without a very good reason. “I want to be a founder” is barely a reason at all – your business will inevitably lack purpose or direction, people won’t buy into it, and it’s already doomed to failure. If your aim is simply to make money, you’d probably be better off doing something else.
In other words, find a real world problem, and solve it well. Without that kind of substance, you don’t really have a business at all – you’ve got yourself a vanity project.
We would like to thank Markus for speaking with us.