Review of Verbling: Chat-roulette style learning system with separate courses

Review of Verbling: Chat-roulette style learning system with separate courses

Benny

Note: This review discusses the free chat-roulette aspect of Verbling. There is also a paid aspect and courses, that I will add to this review shortly. They were added after I wrote this review, and so the look of the site is very different.

For now, I would not personally recommend anything but its free chat-roulette style conversations (and something not mentioned below is that now only works within Chrome). The below review only applies to that free chat aspect that is a little harder to find compared to before when it was the prioritization.

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I like to share some of the most interesting resources to help language learners that I come across, and just this week a brand new, free and very unique option has just come up that is definitely worth checking out: Verbling.

As you can imagine, the motto in the video of “Speak now!” is one I’m certainly behind 100%!

It’s actually been available all year long in Spanish and English, but this week they’ve added Arabic, Mandarin, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. I’ve spent a couple of hours checking it out, and got the chance to ask the Co-founder and CEO Mikael Bernstein some follow-up questions about it that I can share with you today.

I’ll share all the pros and cons of it that I see in its current state, but at the end of the day the most important thing you need to consider is that it’s completely free so you have nothing to lose from trying it out! It’s just further proof that you don’t need to travel to get practice of your target language right now.

Chat-roulette meets language learning

Basically, this website uses a conversation style that has become popular online known as chat roulette, where you are connected completely randomly to a stranger and can start to video or chat to them.

However, the main site that applies that doesn’t have any kind of real purpose in mind, so in many cases it degenerates and you get to see the uglier side of the Internet… definitely not recommended for kids!

Luckily, Verbling has applied a true purpose to an otherwise interesting idea, and made it so that you are randomly assigned a fluent or native speaker of the language that you are learning, and you have the chance to converse with them. It’s completely free because after a five minute cycle, the system suggests you switch languages, and you can help them learn your own, so everyone wins.

There is no teaching element to it, it’s all pure conversation, which is the major ingredient missing in so many language learning systems as far as I’m concerned.

It’s like a speed-dating version of language learning, that’s online and international, but there is no actual dating component to it and everyone is there for genuine language practice!

The language selection option

Yesterday, I decided to use this system to help me get some extra Arabic practice, as that’s the language I’m currently focused on. I logged in instantly via Facebook, and could select which languages I can help people speak (i.e. what I speak fluently), and which languages I want to learn.

The most important question that will come up with a system like this is when are you going to add language X/Y/Z? While they have done a good job of implementing some of the top spoken languages of the world, many of you will of course be learning other ones not listed here. I asked Mikael about this:

…demand for new languages has been immense, and we’re proud to now support 11 major languages. There will always be demand for more, and we’ll keep scaling as the community grows while ensuring the best learning experience for our existing user base… We’re focusing all of our efforts on the current languages that we’ve beta launched, and we plan to grow these communities before talking about a timeline for additional languages.

Based on this answer, I imagine it will be quite some time before new languages are added. If your language isn’t included yet, italki that I mention at the end, can be a good alternative.

One thing that strikes me as different to other systems is that there is no way of grading your levels in the language. Fluency isn’t even defined – in this photo you can see me show my B2, C1, C2 languages supported by the system, and they are treated just as equally as my native language English.

The catch here is that you are not actually guaranteed that you are going to be matched with a native speaker. But if you are a beginner to intermediate learner (and I’ll describe below why the system is more ideal for those levels) then it’s quite OK to be matched with someone who speaks the language very well without being a native speaker. Practice is practice, no matter who you do it with.

Luckily, in all cases that I tried it, I was only matched up with native speakers. Although it’s impossible to know without asking them first. For instance, since I list that I speak Portuguese and my location is listed as Brazil, people logically presumed that I was Brazilian until I told them otherwise. There is no emphasis on the language I speak best/natively.

Of course, my situation is less common and in nearly all cases you are going to be speaking with people from the country you see on their profile.

I asked Mikael if he’d consider implementing different levels and emphasizing that you are a native, and his reply is “We don’t distinguish between fluent and native, because we want to offer the website to a larger amount of people. (i.e. more people are fluent in the languages we’ve launched than native).

This makes sense, and there is a certain advantage to making the interface as simple as possible (even if fluency is never defined). Ultimately this will indeed lead to much more conversations, which is an end-goal I agree with.

In my case, having more languages that I can offer means that I am way more likely to be matched up to someone, although this is only really an advantage for a polyglot like myself. In the sessions I had, I was helping people practice their French, Spanish and their English.

There were enough requests to practice English with me, that I imagine monolingual English speakers shouldn’t have a problem finding a conversation partner, depending on the language they are learning.

Since I am focused on Arabic just for the next couple of months, I decided not to select “Mandarin” as a language I was learning, even though I still need to improve it a lot. This way I wasn’t opening myself to any randomness and knew exactly what language I’d be practising.  In future, I’d select several languages and see through luck of the draw which one I was to practice. This rapid switching would be fantastic for stretching your polyglot muscles!

One drawback of the system as it currently stands means that if the language combination you have of I can speak and I’m learning is one that is not mirrored by someone in the system right now, you may not be able to get any practice.

I suggested that a points system be implemented, so that you could talk in your native language to someone whose language you are not learning, and then “spend” those points on someone whose native language you are learning, even if they aren’t learning yours. This would ultimately lead to much more connections. Mikael agrees, and will be working on it:

Your comments are spot on. We’re continuing to develop our model, and because of the existing imbalances between certain combinations we’re working to develop a credit system which removes the necessity for synchronicity. However, we’ve noticed there are a lot of polyglots out there, and many users have signed up for several languages, which also increases the amount of connections made.

So don’t worry monolinguals, even if you have to wait in the queue a little to get a good language match now, later on it should be much quicker.

One other thing that struck me as a limitation, is that you currently can’t see the interface in other languages. This will be a huge problem if they want to expand the userbase to more people who don’t have a good command of English, and Mikael says they’ll be working on it:

We recognize the importance of localization to the user and are currently in in the process of translating Verbling for more languages.

Getting spoken practice

This is what the basic interface looks like. Several people told me they had technical issues getting in, and these are all based on Flash conflicts as far as I could tell.

The calling system is entirely self-contained in the browser and doesn’t require that you download any extra software, (which is a huge advantage in letting you use on whatever computer you want) but you do need to make sure Flash is working correctly. This means those of you on iPads/iPhones wouldn’t be able to test it out until you get on to a computer. If you have any technical issues, try switching browsers or making sure your webcam and microphone are working correctly and it should work.

There is no test feature before you begin a conversation, so about 1/4 of the people I was to be matched with were blank screens and no audio. Either they were having technical issues, not aware if their webcam/audio was on, or they are simply too shy to talk to the person they see and intentionally disabled them. This isn’t actually that big a deal. Whenever it happened, I hung up and tried again and would likely get someone for real.

It will ask for your permission to connect to your webcam and audio software, and then you are good to go! If you prefer to talk without enabling the camera, you can find that option in the top-right.

As soon as you are connected with someone, the timer starts and you are randomly assigned one of the teach-learn languages you share with this person. So if I saw English, I’d start speaking English and ask about them, and help them with any pronunciation mistakes. After five minutes you switch, and the system clearly indicates this with a bell sound and a display of “Speak Arabic” (or whatever the next language is).

I found this works excellently, because in previous language exchanges I’ve done, there can be an imbalance of one language over the other. It’s great to have a “moderator” remind you, even if it’s automatic.

Randomly assigned a dialect

This can be seen as a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it, but you absolutely cannot select that you just want to practice a particular dialect. For levels intermediate and up, I think this is great because you should be getting exposure to as many dialects as possible.

However, for beginners it can be terribly confusing. If you are learning Spanish from, say, Colombia, and it’s for an upcoming trip to Colombia, then it’s extra work that isn’t actually so beneficial if you end up trying to practise and understand someone from Andalucia, Chile or Argentina, if you are a beginner and never heard these accents before.

The same with English – someone only used to American English, and only interested in American English, may be thrown seriously off balance when talking to Australians, Scots and Irishmen… as well as non-natives from all around the world.

But then again, getting exposure to varied accents early may help you in the long run. In a way, this system represents the non-ideal real world much better. You are thrown in the deep end and have to deal with it – in a way I like this!

However, in my case, I’m learning Egyptian Arabic and this seriously complicates matters. At the moment, I am only concerned with the Egyptian dialect, which is really different to many other ones. Many would argue that the word “dialect” isn’t enough and these are as good as separate languages.

Luckily, I’ve been doing a little Modern Standard Arabic studying too, and as such I somehow managed to keep several five minute conversations going, with a guy from Jordon, someone from Saudi Arabia and another one from Sudan. I was amazed that I was able to do this, and I certainly have this system to thank for opening my eyes to the international world of Arabic more than the single dialect I was restricting myself to!

Although understanding them was way more work than what I’m used to, and this is not ideal since I’m only focused on a trip to Egypt right now, so obviously I wish there was a country specific option. If you are not preparing for a specific trip, being assigned a random accent is most likely a good thing for you! When I mentioned this to Mikael, he said:

In general, users have found it very rewarding to get matched up with people speaking different dialects. It’s a very eye-opening experience. We (are) gauging interest on a higher level for various dialects, and once we move out of beta we plan to add dialect filters for languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

Social aspect and other features

One way you could get around the dialect issue, is that if you use the system enough you’ll eventually get to practise that dialect, and then you can add that person as a friend and see if they are online next time you log in, and just go straight to them instead.

I think this is an excellent idea, because one of the major drawbacks of the chat-roulette system is that it may restrict you to just practising initial small talk. All of my conversations in Arabic were basic; where I live, what I do, how old I am, which at my current level I should not be focusing on, as I’m attempting to have complex conversations. But given the time limit, and the fact that I was dealing with a dialect I wasn’t used to, it’s all I could really get around to.

However, you can add people as a friend, and then just call them up if you see them pop online. Otherwise you can keep going through the system until you find the combination you are looking for. The timer is for 5 minutes each language, but this doesn’t mean that after 10 minutes you say goodbye – you can actually keep conversing, as it keeps switching, and ultimately get a lot of practice and speak on varied topics.

There are also some other basic social features, like a button to compliment the person’s accent/grammar, and a goal bar that encourages you to get 30 minutes practice done a day. And there is a quick tab option to access Google translate if you need a hand understanding something.

I imagine more features will be added with time.

Chat-roulette style or scheduled style?

What I like about this system is how unique it is. It is as spontaneous as you can get, because you are assigned to speak to an absolute stranger, but in a situation where you know you can genuinely practice your target language.

Lack of access to native or fluent speakers is often one of the biggest excuses people give for not advancing in their target language, and I hope this is yet another resource that shows you that this is simply not true any more.

Some people may be shy and afraid of talking to strangers like this, but it really isn’t that bad. The person on the other end, like you, is into language learning and just wants to expand their horizons.

You really have nothing to lose by giving it a try. I asked Mikael if he’ll ever charge for it, or what his business model is and he replied:

We’ll continue to offer Verbling for free but will add premium services that users who want to can choose to pay for.

It’s current set-up will remain free, and as it stands, it’s certainly worth testing out.

For more language combinations, including dialect choices, through free exchanges or lessons, italki is a good alternative. Also, scheduling a lesson on that site certainly has its benefits, as this can be part of a much more structured system to learning a language intensively. This is especially true once you have good exchanges and teachers that you are definitely going to get on Skype with at particular times.

I think more structure and an exchange or lesson that is more consistent (30 minutes or an hour just in one language, rather than five minutes) is ideal for those ready to get into the next stage of learning their languages, but if you are starting out, a burst of five minutes to talk, and the lack of pressure of having a timed lesson, but a place that you can just go into any time you like for a spontaneous spoken session is in itself a fantastic tool.

It’s great that we can use our spare time more efficiently, so I’m glad to see this website available and look forward to seeing it expand.

Given my dialect restriction, I’ll have to stick with italki for now, but when I’m ready to expand to other versions of Arabic I’ll gladly come back to it, as well as when I want to practice my other languages and expand to new ones in their list.

Give Verbling a try, go speak to interesting people from around the world right now, and enjoy the benefits of some spontaneous conversations! Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Note: This review discusses the free chat-roulette aspect of Verbling. There is also a paid aspect and courses, that I will add to this review shortly. They were added after I wrote this review, and so the look of the site is very different. For now, I would not personally recommend anything but its free […]

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