WordDive created a clever way of learning languages
WordDive from Tampere, Finland, pushes language learners to make use of several senses during learning. Now CEO Timo-Pekka Leinonen speaks four foreign languages, whereas before he struggled to buy a train ticket in English.
A French couple asks me for directions in the city centre. They tell me, in French, that they can’t speak any other language – and I understand everything. In order to be of help, I still have to rely on hand gestures.
What a pain! It’s been years since I studied French, and since then I haven’t needed anything more complex than “un thé, s’il vous plait”. Even left and right have disappeared from my vocabulary.
Leinonen used to have a hard time learning languages. He did pass his English matriculation exam, but when he went interrailing, he found it difficult to buy a train ticket or juice in English.
Because of his hobbies, he wanted to learn Japanese. He tried different types of language learning programs, but none of them delivered.
“The programs just weren’t that good,” he says now, almost 30 years later.
Whilst studying at the University of Technology in Tampere, he decided to put his mother’s language teaching experience onto a computer. The DIY program worked well, and Leinonen kept on following the industry’s development.
Leinonen founded WordDive together with four other people in 2009; the service was launched in 2010; and the following year it was selected as the best eLearning solution in Finland. In 2012, the company got an honourable mention at the 2012 Productive Idea competition; in 2014, it was chosen as the Best Mobile Service in Finland; this year WordDive’s name is on Red Herring European Top 100 list.
Many senses working at once
Will WordDive bring back my lost French? Starting to use the service is effortless. Whilst clicking on bubbles and writing words I notice how after seeing a photo or a drawing presenting the word, having it written in front of me, and hearing its pronunciation, next time I see it on the screen I don’t have trouble remembering it.
Sometimes trying to interpret the photos gets annoying. How could I know that a picture of a woman next to a house means vivre, to live? Again – next time it’s exactly that word I remember the easiest.
According to Leinonen, what makes WordDive differ from other similar services is that it activates several senses simultaneously. WordDive also adapts to the needs of individual learners; for example, after a while the program starts to change the pace to match that of the user. Additionally, WordDive aims at encouraging speaking and interacting in a foreign language.
“When one gains confidence with the basics, it’s possible to just focus on speaking the language. That’s where our strength lies,” Leinonen says.
From basics to specifics
For the sake of testing, I give the highest available level of Spanish a go, but I find myself getting bored. Is WordDive not useful for someone who already knows the language, even if at times the subjunctive might slip out of where it should be? Not necessarily, Leinonen reckons.
”If your language skills are on an advanced level, sure you might not need a separate service; you can practise simply by reading or watching films. However, if you want to become, say, nurse, and you’re not familiar with the vocabulary, the service will help.”
WordDive doesn’t offer specialised courses to consumers, but schools use WordDive’s vocabulary courses to train, for example, machinery and metal technology students.
How about a language I’ve never studied? I change the language to German, in which I can only say thank you, sorry, I love you, and a couple of swearwords.
For starters the program tells me to write the word apple in German – or at least the photo unequivocally is of an apple. How am I expected to know this? WordDive tells me both how it’s written and pronounced, and when I see the photo on the second round, I realise I remember it instantly.
Some of the methods are surprisingly clever. In German, masculine nouns are recorded in a male voice, feminine nouns in a female voice, and neutral nouns in a third type of voice. By practising a word, I almost by accident learn its gender, too.
The vast majority of WordDive’s customers are studying English. Leinonen believes that at some point WordDive will offer a selection of about 15 languages. The next language coming up will be Turkish.
“We listen to what our customers want. For example, Estonian came along because one of our customers wanted to learn the language specifically with WordDive, and paid a big chunk of the expenses of the course.”
Text: Anne Salomäki