2003 - Amsterdam. The flat screen shines bright with this thing, called iPod. The alternative, creative Zen, is cheaper. But like a moth to a flame I stare at the iPod. Two weeks later, donning my white earphones, I'm jamming to lovely music enjoying water and bread...
2007 - Heidelberg. Like a ninja turtle I lug a huge backpack with laptop, mouse, charger, current book, backup book, etc. It's cumbersome and heavy. So when Sony releases an e-ink reader, my nerd cells immediately start tingling. Not long after, I'm pleading with the stewardess to let me read while we wait for the plane to leave the gate. A few threats and dirty looks later, and I'm "happily enjoying" the in-flight (paper) magazine...
2008 - Frascati, Rome. My colleague and I arrive at the office's security gate house. We both only have carry-on luggage. Sticking out the front pocket of his however, is something that looks like a sizeable bible. "The Pillars of the Earth", he explains. Really? I'd enjoyed this masterpiece and it's sequel, "World without End", without realising that together they're over 1800 pages. Lugging those around wouldn't have been good for the environment, nor my back.
2010 - Leiden. Another difficult dilemma. This time, money isn't the issue. It's whether I really need an iPad. Over my head, two bright red gadget devils high-five and congratulate each other, as I confirm the order.
2011 - Vallauris, côte Azur. Digital books are nice but shouldn't there be more? More than just a mimic of paper books. Learning French is not easy. But, my motivation is beautiful! So I keep going. Still there must be a better way.
Somewhere along the way I decide, the thing I'm looking for doesn't exist. I'll have to build it. With limited knowledge of the iOS ecosystem, language learning, and entrepreneurship in general, I set out to solve a problem...
So this idea, how did it happen?
I'm frantically looking for ways to improve my French. There is no shortage of videos, audio lessons, books, classes, websites, flash cards, etc. Why am I not satisfied then? Am I that spoiled? Isn't this what everyone else is using? Why can't I just accept the status quo?
Honestly, I don't know. I just feel it should be better. Almost all language learning solutions require lots of time. Ok, fine. But do they have to be boring too?
Being in the country you're forced to speak the local language, which really helps. But when you've practiced "Je voudrais une baguette s'il vous plait" over and over, and the lady retorts with "Très bien. Lequel Vous voulez?" A question you don't really understand, but her sarcastic look combined with the sniffling colleague in the back, you know you're in the m*rde.
Baguette, I would later learn, is more or less a family name. Who knew? It turns out, a host of different types of baguettes exist, from pointy to not so pointy. From soft to something that's closer to a weapon than bread. So next time at the boulangerie, I arrive armed with a photo, just in case.
Perhaps the only thing close to that which I was looking for, was French language shows with English subtitles. But honestly, there's only so much of "Les hauts et les bas de Sophie Paquin" one can take. TV5 Monde documentaries are ok. Keeping up with the video though, is not always easy.
Can language learning be fun?
So my point is, and yes there is one, something is missing in language learning.
It seems every language learning tool is...well...a language learning tool. A single focus on teaching you that language. Is it fun? If it is, I must have missed it.
Looking at (Western) Europe as a whole, one can't help but notice that the smaller countries are better at English. TV executives, it would seem, can't justify the cost for voice-acting for such a small population. So the "poor souls" have to make do with subtitles. The macro result however is that kids grow up listening to English while reading their local language.
It's an subtle yet effective language learning system. The shows are fun and one learns without having to think about it.
Could it be made to truly fit the purpose of language learning?
My geeky infatuation with digital books offered a glimmer of opportunity. Was this what I was looking for? Maybe I'm just crazy? Either way, the end result is the Duolir app before you today. As Judge, Jury and Executioner, you tell me.