Author Archives: Steffen

Tech Can’t Do It Alone

The term ‘disruptive innovation’ is everywhere. Although the term is overused – read this article in which Harvard professor Clayton Christensen who originally coined the term disruptive innovation explains why Uber is not a disruptor but Netflix is – we live in times in which startups and behemoths alike are actively looking for ways to shake up entire industries and they often succeed.

As we use disruptive digital technologies, we sometimes blur the boundaries between our physical and virtual worlds. One example is getting a mortgage loan. Years ago, that required multiple trips to the bank and lots of paperwork, but now you can handle the entire process online from your couch.

Learning to kitesurf.

Many years ago, I was travelling the world as a ‘digital nomad’, a term for someone who works remotely while travelling. One friend called me a homeless freelance programmer instead, in an attempt to make me feel less hip. In the morning I was coding under a palm tree at the beach. In the afternoon – once the wind picked up – I was kitesurfing.

Now, years later, my wife and I order groceries online. I still collect them with the car, but I expect they’ll be delivered soon enough. We also get dinner boxes with recipes delivered to our door, allowing us to eat vegetarian twice a week without any effort. Half the week I work remotely. We have huge electronic mailboxes in which shipping companies can pick up or drop off any package using a pin code without ever seeing us. All these conveniences help free up time to raise our twin boys, Michaël and Daniël.

Thanks to technology we can pursue lifestyles that were not possible before. I love technology; I’m what you might call a gadget freak. My wife has said to me more than once, “Oh, you are not going to buy the latest version of ? I’m surprised.” I believe every technology is worth inventing and makes us better at solving problems.

But what is lost by taking away all this human interaction?

American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer writes that technology may be ‘diminishing us’:

“Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.”

Some time ago – it was in the middle of my digital nomad years – I created some language learning apps. Originally, they were not intended for others to use, because I was travelling in South America and I created the apps to supplement my Spanish and Portuguese language learning. They covered all the basics – vocabulary, phrases, grammar, verb conjugations – but I never imagined they would reach over 2 million downloads in the App Store. Suddenly I had a small language learning business without knowing much about language learning.

Sure, learning languages has been a constant in my life. I was born in Belgium near the French-Dutch language border, and as a Dutch-speaking teenager, I had to know French. I had to attend university in English; I started travelling after my studies, for which I learned some Spanish. Later, I ended up working in Brazil, where I had to learn some Portuguese. Some years ago, I was working with companies in Belarus and Ukraine and I had to learn some Russian. But I am not a polyglot; my track record and language skills are very common.

I began to receive positive feedback on the apps, but I was also getting frequent emails that said, “Your app does not provide any guidance on learning this language. What do I need to do first?” I politely replied that, as the app description clearly mentions, it is designed to support people taking language classes, not people who are learning a language from scratch.

The group of my first week at ECELA Lima.

When learning a language I always attended language classes or had a private teacher. French and English I learned at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwecollege Halle; my first Spanish and Russian I learned at the CLT in Leuven. I continued learning Spanish at ECELA in South America, in Lima, Cusco and Buenos Aires. Portuguese I learned with a private teacher in Brazil.
The app users writing in had a point, but their messages made me wonder whether they were expecting to learn a language just by using an app.

Apps are excellent tools for augmenting learning, and they are often inexpensive to purchase. Lack of access to education is a serious driver of inequality in many countries, and it’s a noble goal to bring free or low-cost education to the world through a digital platform. I’ve tried many language learning apps myself. Duolingo and Busuu are two of them; I love the gamification and interface of Duolingo, and I really like the peer review of speech in Busuu.

But when it comes to my memories of language learning, I remember the real life experiences more vividly and fondly.
My high school French teacher made us think about much more than French alone. He facilitated discussions in class that made each of us think about politics and helped build our view of the world. I remember the Spanish lessons at CLT with Rita, our wise and funny teacher who lived for years in Barcelona. And I remember the Wednesday evenings after the class even more, as we found ourselves in Villa Ernesto, a bar here in Leuven, at 2am and still having to work the day after. I remember the thrill of total immersion courses at ECELA and making my first South American friends there. I remember attempting to speak Spanish in the Amazon region and getting compliments for trying, and a girl trying to teach me Portuguese when I arrived in Brazil. When I tried in my best Portuguese – which was mostly just Spanish – she replied: “Sergio fala Espanhol! Que precioso!” My name is Steffen, but according to this girl, I was suffering from dual personalities (Sergio being my somewhat manly side).

But when learning online, there were no Brazilian girls making fun of me. There were no anecdotes, no 2am meetups, no stories.
Languages are about interacting with others. Whether you learn a language from a teacher or through self-study and interacting with native speakers doesn’t matter. But let’s not take the stories away. Let’s not expect an app to teach us a language without getting other people involved.

Through Linguineo, my wife and I are creating language learning apps that we hope will facilitate more human connections. We recognize and love the potential of technology, but we want to walk the thin line between analog and digital. We want to bring people and technology together.

Our little friends

Saving time on grocery shopping is a wonderful convenience, as are flexible work schedules and apps that help you learn vocabulary faster. But like Foer, I sometimes “worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” We want our boys to be able to venture out into the world and have the same types of experiences as their parents did — real, not just online — and even better.

Learn words! is better than ever – and we couldn’t have done it without you!

It has been an exciting journey to get where we are today. At Linguineo, our goal is to make learning a language as effective and easy as possible, so we launched our Learn Words! app in December 2016 as a supplement to Linguineo’s suite of products. Even though the launch was quite successful, there’s always room for improvement, so after the release of Learn words!, we asked more than 40 language teachers to give us feedback on the app.

One of the first things they said was that they needed to be able to share word lists with their students. We agree that sharing lists is important, so that was one of the first things we changed in our upgrade. Sharing lists is now one of many new and useful features in the app. If you would like to see how to share a list, see a quick video tutorial here.

We received many useful suggestions, and agreed that if three or more teachers made the same suggestion, we needed to make those suggestions part of the upgrade. The new and improved version of Learn Words! is now live and available at the app store.

We think it is important that people can see how we are improving the app, so below is a list of the most common suggestions, and our solutions.

1. Users felt they had to pay for everything – this was never our intention!

Challenge: Most features in Learn words! are completely free, but to pay for the running costs of our servers we do have to charge the heavy users. Unfortunately, this principle of “pay only if you use it a lot” was not properly reflected in the app. Beginner users were constantly confronted with the ‘unlock content’ dialog, although it was usually for the “Use for free” option. Despite this, users felt like we were asking them to pay for each feature and they were understandably getting frustrated.

Christie Vanorsdale: “I think that the system of paying for each add on separately could be improved. Maybe just have everything for purchase as one ‘package’ upgrade as it seems that you need all of those functions to use the app anyway.”

Solution: Now, when a user is able to access a free feature, this dialog is no longer displayed.
We also increased the usage threshold that applies to heavy users by a factor of 4, so people can use the app for free quite a bit longer. In addition to reducing the number of times users encounter the ‘pay for content’ dialog, and raising the frequent user threshold, we have also bundled all permanent upgrades into one package (they were 3 separate upgrades before).

2. Difficulty creating word lists from images

Challenge: Although we tried to make creating a word list from an image as easy as possible in the initial release, users who weren’t very tech-savvy found the process too complicated.

Keon Esky: “As any other teacher would probably tell you, time is of the essence, so you may want to find a way to render the app a bit more shallow (as in user-friendly).”

Deirdre Steenekamp: “I like the app but uploading a list is a bit cumbersome.”

Solution: For each image scan, a user had to indicate whether to use the entire image or only part of it. With our upgrade, it is assumed that the entire image will be used – which will be sufficient in most cases. Users still have the option of cropping the image, but they don’t have to actively decide not to crop with every image upload.

We also disabled the default offline image recognition. Offline recognition was only working well in 10% of the cases and although the app clearly indicated that “in general offline recognition produces low quality results” this was still confusing for our users. Many thought the text could not be recognized at all, but server recognition would have worked in these cases.

Automatic recognition mode is a brand new feature! Before, users had to manually process the recognized text. Although this was easy to do since there were already some context-aware macros available that could remove all duplicates or punctuation with one touch, the process was still confusing. In the new automatic mode the app analyses the recognized text and decides itself which of these macros to execute to get a word list. Now, users can skip this “text processing screen” altogether.

Lastly, the app was not retrieving translations automatically once the recognized text was converted to a list of words even though every user wants these translations. The app will now automatically retrieve the translations. The result is that a user now really only needs to select an image, press “Recognize text” and then decide to add the entire word list with translations or not, which is a much simpler flow.

The old recognize words flow – 9 screens

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The new recognize words flow – 4 screens

screen1 screen2 screen3 screen4

3. Too many options

Challenge: Before the upgrade, users had 7 choices when adding words.

Ana Pecanha: “As a student, I think there are lot of options and sometimes having so many options at one’s disposal can make one lose the point.”

Solution: We have reduced this to 5 clearer options, postponing certain decisions to later in the flow. Previously, users had to choose Learn, Exercise or Play, when doing an exercise. Depending on their selection, 10 more options appeared for the exercise type. Now, users only press the Exercise button, and then select one of 5 options. The additional configuration options are still there, but there are no forced selections, and users can begin their exercises right away, using the defaults.

4. Labeling lists was difficult

Challenge: A remark many teachers made was that they wanted to give a label to their word list, but they could not see how to do it. Although this was already possible, the feature was hard to identify.

Graziani Correa: “It is not clear where I put a name for my list and where that name appears later, such as “Parts of the head” or “Animals”. I consider the name of the list something that is important to be visible to guide the studies.”

When adding words, the app did not explicitly ask for a label for the newly added words. The option was there – “Add label” – but most people did not use it. As a result, they were importing words without a label attached to them and had no way to group the imported words again later.

Solution: Now, with each imported list, the app explicitly asks for a label. If a user does not enter one, the app will add one. In addition, the label is now always shown in the “my words” section.

5. It was not possible to load public lists

Teachers did not request that we make it possible for users to upload public lists, but two users asked us how other users could load a public list they created. The option to set a list as “public” was already there, but there was no way to retrieve a list of public lists. Now, this option is available.

6. Other changes

Overall, we have dramatically improved the user experience. In addition to the more noticeable upgrades above, we have also made some smaller improvements because all feedback is important to us and we carefully consider every suggestion.

  • Improved user friendliness of the speech exercise. After recording you had to press “stop recording” and then “answer” – you can do this now in one action.
  • Easier to amend mistakes in the server suggestions.
  • New option to select all words without a label. Before the upgrade, it was only possible to either select all the words or all the words from a specific label. If you wanted to select all words without a label (to assign a label to them for example) you had to select each word manually.
  • Attach pictures from your image library to a word without being logged in. Before, this feature was only available to users who were logged in to their Linguineo account.
  • More appropriate example sentences. Suggested sentences were often too advanced for students. By default, simpler sentences are suggested now.

We are continually working to improve the functionality and content of the Learn Words! app, but some changes take more time than others. Stay tuned for updates on improved audio and some fun, new games!

Many teachers took time out of their busy schedules to provide us with these comments and suggestions, and we offer them all our sincerest thanks. We are very happy with the results of this teacher consulting round and hope everyone will like the changes!

Introducing Learn Words

The first apps we ever developed at Linguineo contain an entire language course at the touch of a few buttons. While the convenience of having foreign language lessons on the go means that our users can practice anywhere at anytime, they do not allow you to pick the content you want to practice.

A photo I made at the end of my first Russian class.

A photo I made at the end of my first Russian class.

Not long ago, I enrolled in another language course in Leuven, Belgium. To learn Russian this time. Our Russian Class app helped me practice verb conjugations and research grammar rules whenever curiosity struck. The image and listening exercises helped to familiarize me with the language even more. But I still found myself struggling to incorporate the app into my daily language learning routine because the app’s content didn’t always align with my formal coursework. Exam prep was, therefore, always tedious and non-interactive which can be quite demotivating for language learners.

The question became “What would the perfect app be, for a student who has to learn some very specific course content?”

An early wireframe of the full blown course app that we didn't end up developing.. this time.

An early wireframe of the full blown course app that we didn’t end up developing.. this time.

Our first idea was a very simple one: build an app in which students can define their entire language course. By entering all words, verbs, grammar and phrases, the users end up with a language class app of their own, perfectly suited to their needs. It was a promising idea, but we realized almost immediately that no user would ever want to type every word from a course book into an app.

The app’s success would depend on its ease of import, so we decided to focus on that. Instead of creating a full-blown course app in which users enter the course’s entire content, we would start with creating an app that did one thing very well. It would quickly create word lists that contain only the words the students want to learn.

When I took my language class, there was a section at the end of each chapter with words we needed to know for that chapter. I thought, ‘if only I could take a photo of those pages, have an app recognise the words in the photos and then add translations and images (as memorisation aids) for each word without having to type anything, I would have the perfect app!’

So that is what we made.

The text on the image is being recognized.

The text on the image is being recognized.

Our new app is able to take photos of real-world material, recognise the words in these photos, and then add translations and images (as memorisation aids) for each word all without having to rely on manual entry.

We also added another long-awaited feature for our course apps: learn mode. By leveraging the characteristics of short and long term memory, the app helps the user memorise his or her customised vocabulary list. You can expect this new feature to appear in our old course apps over the course of next year.

We firmly believe that our resulting Learn Words app is perfect for learning only the words you want to learn. After creating your vocab list, you can begin learning the words in your list efficiently thanks to the help of various interactive exercises, and you can easily track your progress towards your language goals.

Learn Words is already available on iOS, and we are currently working on the Android and desktop versions which are set to be released in the beginning of 2017.

Happy language learning!

Language statistics and trivia from our exercise report data

At Linguineo we like statistics and anecdotes about language learning and we will try to share as many of those as possible with our community. In this post we will take a first look at the statistics that a bit more than 100.000 exercise reports offer us.


Linguineo currently offers 9 language classes: Spanish, French, German, Italian, English, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch.

As the table below shows most exercises are being completed on Spanish. The runner-up is different per platform: for Android this is Italian, while for iOS both English and French come in second. On both platforms, the share of these 4 most popular languages is about 85-90%, dwarfing the share of the other 5.

Android iOS
Spanish 43% 34%
English 13% 24%
French 9% 22%
Italian 16% 8%
Portuguese 4% 5%
German 9% 4%
Japanese 2% 1%
Russian 0% 1%
Dutch 4% 1%

We also want to look at who is learning which language and in which country each language is being learned. Unfortunately, our data with regard to this is polluted due to the fact that some of our apps are only available in English, most are available in Dutch and English, and only some are available in 5+ languages.

Our Dutch Class app for example is mostly used by English speakers, but since this app is only available in English, it is unclear that this is because there are more English speakers learning Dutch than say French ones, or that the fact the app is English only poses a significant barrier to entry for French speaking people. Maybe the latter?

Let’s take our English Class app as another example. This app is available in 8 languages and is mostly used in the United States, which might seem a bit odd, since English is the main language there anyway. But a closer look shows that many of these downloads are done by users whose native tongue is Spanish. This is an example of one of the patterns we often see emerge: by looking at the usage of a language app in the country where its subject language is spoken, you can predict which foreign speakers are learning that language there. Of course, again, entry barriers of the language that the user is being tutored in not withstanding.

Just as interesting is which nationalities are learning the language of another country while not moving there. English speakers in the US for example clearly prefer learning Spanish, with Italian and French coming in second. In Europe, a variety of languages are learned, with French, German, English or Italian being the most popular depending on the country. In countries like Brazil and India, English clearly wins: these countries all have higher download numbers for the English Class app than any European country while almost not having any downloads for any of our other language learning apps.

We noticed some other patterns and interesting things, but decided to keep them for a future blogpost. The new app that we are developing will be available in 15+ languages and tutor more than 20 languages, which should provide for a less polluted and less incomplete source of data.

We also tried to get an indication on “What is the most difficult language?”. The averages of the sum of all exercise report results for a language all end up somewhere between 70% and 90%, with Japanese, Russian, Dutch and German at the lower end of the spectrum(<80%), English in the middle, and the Romance languages French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the higher end of the spectrum(80%>). It is not clear that this measurement has anything to do with the difficulty of the language though. It is possible that if we dig deeper into the data, which we plan to do later on, we might find completely other reasons for this difference. Other things we noticed with regard to difficulty are that users of the demo apps make a lot more mistakes(average result of 70%) than the users of the full course apps(average result of 85%) – dedication anyone? 🙂 – and that some exercise modes – for example writing versus multiple choice – are much more difficult than others.


Now we are talking about exercise report statistics: most exercises are completed in the weekend – even a bit more on Sunday than on Saturday – and the exercises with 10 and 25 exercises are most popular: for each language we land somewhere between 12 and 24 for the average number of exercise items. With the demo users – dedication, again, anyone? – preferring shorter exercise series than the users of the full apps.

Again, we save the most interesting data for last: which exercises are our users doing?

The table below shows that word exercises are clearly the most popular, accounting for more than 50% of all the exercises being done.

Verb exercise 19%
Word exercise 54%
Grammar exercise 15%
Speaking exercise (Android only) 2%
Listening exercise 11%

The next table shows which word exercises are done most(we left out some rare ones, such as “Pick the correct letter” and “Phonetic -> Tutor language” which are only available in very specific cases), with the easiest default category of “Language being learned -> Tutor language” having a share of more than 80%!

Word exercise on gender 1%
Word exercise – recognize the image 7%
Word exercise – language learned to tutor language 83%
Word exercise – tutor language to language learned 9%

This means that almost 50% of all exercises being done are word exercises in which the user answers what a foreign word means by translating it to his own language. Although – no more jokes anymore about dedication 🙂 – this pattern is much more visible among our demo users and full app users complete a much wider variety of exercises and are clearly taking advantage of the grammar sections of our apps, it made us view our current course apps from a new angle. We treated this information as valuable input for our upcoming new app.


We conclude this post with some trivia: the most popular word – the word that users answered the most is the Spanish word “llevar” – “to take, carry” which was answered 1235 times in the sample. The most difficult words are the Spanish word “el corzo” – “roe” – which is the word that was most often answered incorrectly (but also 544 times correct)- and the Japanese word “~つづける” – “to continue doing”, which is the word that was never answered correctly with the highest number of incorrect answers: 4.


This post is our first post about our language data. If there is enough interest we will be posting more of these. If you have an interesting question or viewpoint you would like us to take a look at, do not hesitate to ask us here or on our Facebook page.

End of year app updates

The past couple of months we released a few updates to our language applications to celebrate their 5 year anniversary.

We restructured the courses. We split all courses into 10 lessons instead of 5, we added labels for the useful phrases and we split the huge category “3000 Common Words” into different categories.

We also added the long awaited “writing” exercise mode to the word, verb and grammar exercises, which certainly improves the exercises on reproduction a lot.

We added a “learning mode” to the vocabulary, which makes studying the words in the vocabulary easier.

Since many of our users were asking for more image exercises, we also brought the number of images from 250 to 500.

We introduced Helena and Aito, her owl, who both will be making more appearances in the upcoming year.

And we redesigned the screens for tablets which historically were not looking as good as the smartphone designs and are pretty happy with the results.

screenshot_iPad_home screenshot_iPad_exercise_setup screenshot_iPad_exercise screenshot_iPad_result

We hope everyone is enjoying these updates and wish everyone a good end of 2015 and an even better 2016!

You can read more about our full course apps here.