LANGUAGE COURSES: Parlez-vous internet? - Linguaphone's Humphrey Walwyn and Adrian Land tell Charlotte Goddard how the internet is enabling the language learning provider to offer users more choice

When Linguaphone launched 101 years ago, it was using the latest technology to help people learn languages. But while its core objective remains the same, the latest technology no longer consists of a wax cylinder and a gramophone.

The language learning firm has had a web site since 1998 (www.linguaphone.co.uk), but an influx of cash from a £1.9 million recapitalisation earlier this year has enabled it to embrace digital channels with greater passion than ever before.

"The history of Linguaphone runs parallel with the history of recorded sound, says Humphrey Walwyn, new-media and publishing director at Linguaphone. The company has always concentrated on audio, and later video, channels rather than book-based learning, making the multimedia properties of the internet a perfect channel to market.

"The internet is a natural for us, comments Adrian Land, the company's internet marketing manager. "Language and the internet are both about communication, and we are in the business of both. All publishers stand to benefit enormously from new technology, depending on how it is applied."

Linguaphone's original web site was merely a sales channel for its CD- and tape-based language packages. Despite little marketing activity, Walwyn claims that sales were healthy. "People were finding us by our brand name, which has practically become a generic word for language learning, he says. Today, more than one-quarter of Linguaphone's £15m annual turnover is achieved via e-commerce, according to Walwyn, and the company is now moving towards online-only products.

At present, the only online products available are beginners to intermediate French and Spanish courses, which cost £49.90 for a three-month subscription. More products are set to follow. A lot of thought has gone into designing the online lessons, which are very different from the company's other courses.

"You can't take a standard learning interface and place it successfully onto a web environment, says Walwyn. "It would be terribly cheap to get a PDF of a book, put it on the web and charge people to download it, or to get a web designer to web-enable one of our original courses. Our online courses are based on how people behave on the web, and have a high use of interactivity."

Rather than taking students on a linear journey from page to page as a book or CD would, the online courses confront users with a number of paths to follow, and let them discover what works and what does not for them. "Most courses are designed with a series of bridges linking one part of the course to the next, explains Walwyn. "But our internet courses are more like stepping stones, where each stone can take you to a number of other stones."

People tend to be less patient with the internet than they might be with an offline product, so no segment of the course lasts longer than 60 seconds, according to Walwyn. "We keep things short and bright, using kids' colours, he says.

In addition to the online courses, Linguaphone is working on another subscription-based product, CD Live, which is set to launch later this summer. It involves daily news articles, audio bites and video being delivered to the user via the internet for translation and learning exercises. It has been developed in line with the GCSE and A-Level national curriculum.

"We are very excited about CD Live, which has taken longer to launch than we anticipated because we want to get it right, enthuses Walwyn. "The product will be constantly updated, including radio and TV news from that morning with a transcript, and written and spoken items which are relevant and interesting to users."

Of course, TV, radio and written news is available on the internet for free in any number of languages if you search for it, but Linguaphone aims to help people find content at the right level for their abilities.

In 1998, the firm included a list of useful links on its site, but discovered it was not the best way forward. "It was quite destructive, as we would divert traffic away from our site that might not come back," says Land. "We learned from that experience."

Subscribers can organise their online courses through a personalised section of the site, called My Linguaphone, which also contains quizzes and games. Access to My Linguaphone is free to those who register - although they have to pay for any courses they take up - but the company is thinking of charging.

"We used to run a Linguaphone Club, but it fizzled out, says Walwyn. "This project will revisit that. But if something on the internet is free, there is a feeling that it is not worth it. On the web, free equals crap."

Land says the company is working on a new site infrastructure to move its business forward. "We are altering the set-up of our database to handle marketing requests, such as email campaigns, he explains. Other ideas in the pipeline include the development of a mobile service. "We are looking at projects that involve voice recognition, says Walwyn. "But they would have to be short, sharp language slugettes, so that users' brains don't go into overload."

Retention and repetition are key to language learning, so Lingaphone plans to call subscribers with about six words of Spanish, for example, at 6.15 am every morning as a wake-up call. It will follow that up with an audio reminder at lunch time, then maybe send a text message as a reminder. "Frequency leads to recall, declares Walwyn.

These new channels are not designed to replace Linguaphone's existing courses; they are intended to give people as many ways to learn languages as possible.

Linguaphone's web site is fully e-commerce-enabled, and users are able to search by the language they want to learn or by where they want to learn it (in the car, online, at home). Products are kept in a warehouse at Linguaphone's headquarters, which allows the company to keep a close eye on fulfilment. For the duration of this year's World Cup, the firm ran an online promotion offering 20 per cent off 19 language courses chosen to represent teams participating in the World Cup.

The site also contains what Walwyn refers to as 'lemonade sections', which contain facts and figures about 22 countries and 28 languages. These are designed to provide added value to potential Linguaphone customers and act as a marketing tool. "Our site is predominantly a marketing site designed to show off the wide range of our products, he says.

It would seem likely that a company based around languages would be in a good position when it comes to marketing its products abroad, and indeed Linguaphone sells its products in more than 60 countries, mainly through joint ventures and partnerships. The company is directly involved in Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and India. Users can access 34 microsites through a map on its international portal (www.linguaphone.com). These are designed to follow the same template, but each country has a different look and feel. At present, the UK site accounts for 48 per cent of all impressions.

"It is increasingly crucial to have a page in the host language of whatever country you are marketing to, as it helps with the local search engines, says Land. "We give a lot of attention to search engine marketing, both paid-for and free, and have a good position on most search engines around the world. Most of our partner sites are mirrors of our main site, but with different pricing structures and in different languages."

The design of the individual web sites has to be carefully planned, as do the role-play situations in the courses sold through those sites. "In Japan, for example, a man and a woman don't talk to each other unless they have been formally introduced, explains Walwyn. "So you have to be careful with a role-play situation in which a man talks to a woman. This has to be reflected in the site's pictures as well."

Linguaphone aims to make its country sites true international arenas, serving both as a hub for the people in that country who want to learn another language, and as a resource for non-native speakers interested in learning that language.

"We want people who have bought a course to be able to immerse themselves in their chosen language online, says Walwyn. "To that end, we would like to be able to integrate our sites so that everything is in the language and the level of the course that has been bought. For example, the browser, the instructions and so on would all be in basic French."

Linguaphone has started creating co-branded sites with online travel partners, such as Thomas Cook, Teletext and Saga. "We are not just selling our products, says Land. "There are also added-value items, such as phrase books, that users can print off like cue cards and take on holiday. I think that we will be involved in more partnership sites in the future, although it does take a long time to set them up."

Learning a language is on many people's list of things to achieve before they reach a certain age or retire, so anything that makes the process easier - such as online learning - will no doubt see returns on any serious investment.

But could the very technology that is enabling Linguaphone to sell more courses end up making the company redundant? Think about that plot device so beloved of television shows set in the future - the universal translator.

Nice though it may have been for Captain Kirk to be able to seduce alien lovelies without resorting to learning 'alienese', the translator has so far seemed to be more science fiction than science fact. But Walwyn believes that some companies are quite close to developing one. "I am a supporter of electronic translation, he says. "A number of applications exist that can automate translation, and an intelligent, articulate machine would be the ultimate language tutor. A true optimist, he explains that this would see automation continue to aid language learning, rather than render it unnecessary.

LINGUAPHONE'S RIVALS PROVIDE COMPETITIVE OFFERINGS ONLINE

Parlo, which launched in 2000, is an online-only provider of language courses in the US (www.parlo.com). It believes in 'virtual immersion' - recreating the experience of learning a language in the country that speaks it.

The types of courses available range from structured lesson plans to learning through karaoke-style singing. Prices range from $39 to $69 (£26.40 to £46.71), but there is also free content on the site, including up-to-date articles and songs.

Varun Bedi, founder of Parlo, says: "Our approach integrates language courses with interactive learning experiences. Our students are immersed in the sights, sounds and happenings of a language and its culture. They can gain knowledge that is useful and enriching. Most of the e-learning players in the UK target school-age kids. Examples include learn.co.uk, the Guardian's e-learning site, and Channel's 4's e-learning arm 4Learning (www.channel4.co.uk/learning).

Heather Rabbatts, managing director of 4Learning, says: "We offer microsites with interactive games in French, Spanish and German for 14- to 18-year-olds; these integrate with Channel 4's Extra programme about a group of flatmates, which encourage language learning."

As part of its move to position itself as the major e-learning provider for the UK, the BBC offers an extensive range of free online language resources via its web site (www.bbc.co.uk/education/languages). The resource is text- and audio-based, and also links with BBC TV and radio programmes. A link to bbcshop.com allows users to buy tapes, books, CDs and videos over the internet.

ABOUT LINGUAPHONE

- The company was established in 1901 and used wax cylinders to provide native voices to copy.

- Its first web site was launched in 1998.

- In 2000, it bought CD Live (www.cdlive.co.uk) and ILT Holdings, owner of CD-Rom company English Express (www.english-express.com).

- In 2000, venture capitalists ProVen Private Equity and Quester sunk £2.75 million into Linguaphone in return for a 25 per cent stake in the company.

- The company raised £1.9m in an open offer this May, much of which is being ploughed into online activity.

- Linguaphone saw turnover of £13.3m for the year ending 30 June 2001, which was derived mainly from the UK, Far East and Australasia.

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