The problem-solution fit of language learning

What is your language-learning story? My language-learning story has to do with my interest in seeing the world and communicating with people from different countries and cultures. When I was growing up, my favorite book was the World Atlas. The maps and place names called to me from the pages as I dreamed of the places I would visit someday.

In the US, where I grew up, I had English as the language of primary education and Greek as a language with family and at church. There were also lessons at church where I learned to read and write Greek when I was 13. In high school I had French, befriended the two exchange students from France and went on to be the first from my high school to pass the Advanced Placement test in any foreign language.

Despite my enthusiasm for languages, I recognise that it’s not easy to reach a high professional level in a language. It takes a lot of persistence and a lot of study and practice.

My interest in seeing the world has led me to live, study and work in many different countries around the world. Now I live in Norway. Along with my years of exploring the world and living and sojourning in many different countries, I have reached the point where I can write articles in eight different languages. When it comes to writing, one thing for sure is that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Matching advanced language learners

That’s why I created yozzi.com. It’s a platform where we can write in our target languages and seek help from the community for ways to improve our writing. I introduced yozzi.com at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in 2016. My idea at the time was that other language enthusiasts may want to write articles in their target languages as well. My hope was to match people with languages and have a community of people writing and improving their writing.

When I created Yozzi, I wasn’t only thinking of myself and language enthusiasts. The idea behind Yozzi is to benefit any person who seeks to reach a professional level in another language. The greatest struggle Yozzi has is where to find those who are interested in achieving such goals.

Experiments and Scaling Lean by Ash Maurya

My introduction of Yozzi in Berlin to 50 language enthusiasts was my first experiment. (If you’re not familiar with Ash Maurya and Running Lean and Scaling Lean, see http://ashmaurya.com) The experiment didn’t go well. In the end Yozzi didn’t receive a single guest article from an attendee of my presentation. However, I did manage to network with people in the language learning industry. In addition, meeting people at the Polyglot Gathering also lead to some interesting guest interviews for the site. However, my notion that Yozzi would grow by following experiments à la Scaling Lean fizzled out.

Pitching at Startup Drill

When I learned about the Startup Drill, I signed up with the idea of pitching Yozzi. Since I hadn’t read much about the Startup Drill before attending, I didn’t know what to expect. Before preparing my pitch I started to look into what the Startup Drill was all about. It began to become clear that I wasn’t supposed to pitch Yozzi. I was supposed to ignore what I considered to be the solution (a platform where I could match people writing articles in language A with people writing articles in language B and vice versa, who would comment and help one another improve their writing). Instead I had to pitch the problem. My pitch also had to be limited to 45 seconds.

Thanks to some practice before the Startup Drill, I was able to attract two other team members around the problem. The problem I pitched was that it is difficult to write at a professional level in a language that we weren’t using to submit our school homework assignments and university reports. There were several others competing to form a team. Of about seven pitches presented at the workshop, five of them ended up forming teams.

Forming a Team and Discussing the Problem

Once my team formed, we began discuss the problem. That’s when I began to look at the problem differently.

Instead of focusing on writing, we first looked at the problem of language-learning in general. Later we began to focus on those foreigners in Norway who sought to attain a professional level in Norwegian as a path to social integration and to improve their career prospects.

The benefits of participating in the Startup Drill

Talking to a potential customer during Startup Drill

When you take part in the Startup Drill, you test assumptions as you focus on the problem.

Doing so also helps you see related problems. You can make connections and gain new insights through this process.

By finding people who are dealing with the problem and by asking them open-ended questions, were are able to validate or dismiss our assumptions. We were also able to gain new insights into the problem. For example, we began to see that the extent of the problem in Norway also revolves around the sector where people work and how satisfied people are with their present jobs.

How did Yozzi benefit from the workshop?

It remains to be seen how Yozzi itself has benefited from the Startup Drill. When we’ve already built a platform and nobody is using it to its full potential, we face the issue known in economics as sunk costs. We feel an attachment to something because we spent money on it and now it’s there.

Yozzi is still a place where I can practice writing in my eight strongest languages, although it remains to be seen how much feedback I’ll ever get on my writing via the platform. To improve my Norwegian, I’ve turned to LingU where I receive feedback from a Norwegian teacher. The community of learners can also provide feedback.

Yozzi is also still a place where people can reach out to me and post their guest articles, engage in guest interviews and where I can share my experiences with others and learn from others. The comment platform (my notion of a solution) still hasn’t received a critical mass of users to make the platform very attractive for those who seek feedback from others on their writing.

My main point is to find a group of five people who are native speakers of language A and are enthusiastic about writing in language B and a group of five people who are native speakers of language B and are enthusiastic about writing in language A. Then I’d like to match them up and conduct an experiment with the platform. From there I’d like to receive feedback on the platform and conduct another experiment to see where to go next.

My greatest struggle with having an existing ‘solution’ to a problem is the temptation of seeing whether it is viable, the desire to experiment around it and improve and scale it.

This is what I’ve learned from reading Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean. Despite this, I didn’t manage to be lean when I launched the platform. Rather than build a platform, I should have used lean methods to first validate my hypothesis.

Since one part of my goal was to have a platform to practice writing in my eight strongest languages, I was thinking of myself as the user and hoping to find others across the globe who also want to practice and improve their writing. At this point the question for Yozzi looks to find one person who wants me to help them write better in English, and who in exchange can help me write better in either: Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese or Spanish. Before I scale up, I have to start with a reasonable goal.