busuu.com  is inconceivably big. It is in fact the largest social network for language learning in the world with over 30,000,000 users from 200 countries. That’s more than the population of Uzbekistan. It’s more than the populations of the Czech Republic, Sweden and Austria combined. It’s more than 800 times the size of Liechtenstein, the homeland of busuu.com co-founder Adrian Hilti.

In short, busuu.com is, for all intents and purposes, a world power when it comes to online language learning. This is undisputedly demonstrated in the partnerships they have forged: Collins and PONS (part of the Klett Group) to offer grammar guides, The Guardian and MacMillan’s English Dictionary.

How has it managed to build such a considerable following and (more importantly) what is it doing to retain those followers? In this two-parter we’ll be taking a leisurely walk through the site in an attempt to get to grips with its underlying appeal.

According to its founders the site was devised in response to personal experiences of ‘traditional’ language learning that were (unsurprisingly) “expensive, difficult and boring”. The busuu.com network was created to offer an antidote to that most counter-productive trinity.  Currently, the site offers courses in 12 languages and provides interactive audio/video support as well as real-time practice with native speakers. The content is benchmarked against CEFR (A1-B2), with learning content being delivered in 150 units or so. The content is provided based on a freemium model, with a large amount of learning material being available upfront for free (vocab, reading and writing exercises, interactive exams and goal setting), but with a substantial amount content being available to subscribers (podcasts, grammar units, video units and so on).

Upon choosing the desired language (it can be more than one) and registering with the site, the learner is able to create a profile complete with pic and bio. They are then launched into an objective-rich dashboard, every square inch of which seems to be dedicated to motivating and empowering the learner. There are learning goals to set, there are badges to earn, there’s a community to interact with, friends to find and upgrades to purchase. There’s a To Do list on hand to itemise these steps in the event you’d missed them elsewhere.

Somewhere, I’m guessing, there’s a language to learn.

Interestingly, as a newcomer to busuu, I’m automatically assigned the label of A1/Beginner. Fair enough, my Turkish is incredibly limited, but busuu.com doesn’t know that and it didn’t take the time to find out.

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Cracking on …

The opening unit offers a range of exercises and interactions; clearly scaffolded vocab content (pic, Turkish text and audio plus English translation),  a brief dialogue-based activity, a writing task (to be checked by a native speaker). There’s the opportunity to connect with a conversation partner online to practice what you’ve learnt or to work on pronunciation. There’s also an ‘end of unit test’ to take to consolidate and quantify the work undertaken in the core unit. Activity types in use include the usual suspects:  multiple choice, drag and drop and text entry.

Upon completion you’re given the opportunity to share your progress badges with your facebook contacts and to set up/recalibrate your learning goals (which appears to refer to a time/coverage ratio rather than anything competency based. I was looking for the ‘I want to be able to hold a basic conversation and exchange personal details with a native speaker‘ option, but it wasn’t available.)

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Carrots and stickers aside, in the next post we’ll be looking to get a deeper insight into what makes busuu.com such a compelling proposition for language learners.

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