Speak 15: Peer-to-Peer Conversation Tables

Tue 24 September 2013

The Problem

I have always wanted to speak Dutch fluently. I feel a bit ashamed, in a trilingual country, to only speak one of the three official languages. As many French speaking Belgians, I have been taught Dutch for years in school, but with very poor results because we did not get to speak Dutch that much in reality. In a classroom with 26 students, you cannot give much time to every student to speak. Plus, I never got the chance to be immersed in a Dutch speaking environment for very long.

For years, I have been wanting to go to conversation tables, since it seems to be the generally best accepted way to enhance your language skills. At first, it sounds like a good idea, but they have in my book one obvious problem: you are actually meeting with people that are also willing to learn, and who consequently do not have a very good level. Usually there is only one fluent speaker at the table and you only get to talk a very small fraction of the session time. On top of that with three kids and a demanding job, finding the time to attend an usually lengthy session is a real challenge.

What I really would like to do is to speak with a native Dutch speaker from my home or during my commutes or trips, when I have time and in short, not too demanding, sessions. I do not really need a teacher, I mainly need to practice with a benevolent listener who would correct me and help me find the words that I forgot. What I could offer in exchange is a bit of evening time to do the same.

Internet!

So being the internet geek that I am, my first thought has been to create a website to support such a system. On top of the flexibility that it would offer to the users in terms of "opening hours" and (im)mobility, I also dream of offering socially isolated (especially elder) people to contribute with their time and their knowledge from where they happen to live. If I could make some people feel useful again, I would be really happy. I also love the idea that everyone has an interesting knowledge to share.

So, here are the features that I would like to have:

  1. the ability to speak directly from my browser, to be as welcoming as possible by avoiding to install software;
  2. a small accounting and rating system for the users, so as to ensure that everybody plays fully by the rules and does not act only as a burden on the system;
  3. a "matchmaking feature" meaning that you can simply ask to speak some language, and the system immediately binds you with someone available (if there is somebody). If you have played two player strategy video games like Starcraft 2, yep, exactly like that.
  4. In the future, I would love to create mobile apps for the system. How cool would it be to be able to take a quick "learning break" to practice your language skills in your car or during your trips?

This summer, I happened to have some time to poke at the concept. It turns out that it is quite feasible. The technology to build such thing is now available freely and I am in consequence currently working at implementing the website that I have in mind. I actually have already worked in previous jobs on almost all the parts needed, either the frontend javascript, the backend server administration, the voice over IP (which means Internet Protocol, for the less technically inclined) and the mobile apps. For those interested: here are the technologies that I use: Django, Freeswitch and WebRTC.

I decided to call the site Speak15 because the name is easy to remember, evokes the idea of a small speaking session ("Speak 15 minutes") and because the domain name speak15.com was available. I even designed a small logo (Sorry for your eyes, my designer friends):

Speak 15 Logo

Publicizing

Usually when I decide to work on a side project like this, I keep it to myself until it is ready, as I did for populationpyramid.net migrationsmap.net or zofa but this time, I decided to write this blog post to explain the project for two reasons:

  1. This kind of project will need an initial community to begin. I need to get people interested even before it starts. So, if you are indeed interested, please go to the website and register yourself to be notified when the site launches.
  2. On the concept alone, I have been invited to quickly present the initiative at the inaugural event of the Marnix Plan on next Saturday (the 28th of September). The Marnix Plan is "a bottom-up collective effort to promote the learning of several languages among all layers of the Brussels population." It is a great initiative, and I think that it will be a great occasion to meet like minded people. Plus, this invitation underlines an interesting fact: Europe, and Brussels in particular, having a multilingual environment, are the perfect spot to launch such a website.

So, to publicize the project I created a small site to explain the concept. It is essentially a (much) shorter version of the content of this blog post.

Money Talks (too)

As for the status of the initiative, I envision it as a startup project, meaning that at some point, it will need to pay for itself. Servers are cheap these days but not free, my free time is not infinite and I still need to put food on the table. (Actually the site already cost me my first euros since I had to get it translated in … Dutch) I currently do not have a precise idea on how to make the site sustainable: crowdfund it, make users pay by the minute, get help from public institutions, put advertising on the site, offer the services of pro teachers, any idea is welcome. I intend to offer at least a free tiers, where you can get for example your first hour of conversation for free.

Thanks for Reading this Far

So here you are, this is my new side project. I fully intend to bring it to fruition. If you are interested to become a user, register at http://speak15.com and do not hesitate to leave a comment here under. If you want to help, you could begin by helping me translate this blog post in … Dutch.

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