Uncommon sense about language learning

Let's face it. Something's not quite right in the world of language study programs. They promised you 'fluency', and yet here you are, hundreds of hours of effort (and maybe a few hundred bills) later, dissatisfied with your language skills, and still looking for the magic bullet.

Is Jiveworld it? Maybe. But before you spend your money and time with us, you owe yourself a few minutes to find out what you're getting. If you're serious about mastering a second language — well, so are we.

The wrong question

The only way to get the right answer is to ask the right question.Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

Usually we ask someone if they speak a language. ¿Habla español? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? 日本語を_話せますか_?It's true, we do express ourselves first in speech, before writing. But more fundamental than expression is comprehension. We see the world before we paint it; we hear music before we play an instrument; and we listen to and understand others, before we speak ourselves. The word "understand" itself is a clue: it means "to stand in the middle" (in this case under isn't beneath; it's more like inter-).

And yet the actual practice of language teaching focuses on reading, writing and speaking. To the extent you're encouraged to listen, it's almost always to a carefully articulated, slow-spoken version of the language. The result is familiar to most of us: we step outside the classroom and try and use what we've learned with a native speaker — someone who doesn't talk like Mr. Rogers — and our ears don't work. Sure, you can give commands: Dos cervezas por favor. But if you ask ¿Donde está el baño? they'd better be pointing right at it when they answer.

Listening will set you free

The sound of the voice... brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of manHelen Keller

The point is that listening isn't just one of the so-called "four language skills": it's the foundational skill. If you ever want to free yourself from books and apps and classes and do your language learning in the wild — in real conversations, watching movies, listening to podcasts — you've got to get your ears up to the job. Until then you'll be doing the language equivalent of "painting by numbers" or playing Chopsticks mechanically with two fingers on the piano.

Once you understand natural speech in your target language everything opens up: you can immerse yourself in it and absorb the idiom. As Helen Keller suggests, it goes beyond communication: it's about meaningful connection to others. From that point the speaking just happens, and the reading and the writing — much like it was with your mother tongue.

An inconvenient truth

If all this seems obvious, you're in good company. You don't need research to prove the importance of natural listening — and yes, there are plenty of studies: it's a self-evident truth that's been known for millennia, for as long as languages have been learned. So why is there so little emphasis on natural listening?

That's easy: it's because it's hard. And it's not just hard for us. We had talking computers in the 1960s. It took another 50 years before they could decipher speech (Hey Siri!) Real-world speech is messy, organic, diverse, and uses a much richer lexicon than you'll find in a textbook. So they teach you the stuff that's straightforward to teach, but when it comes to real-world listening, you're on your own, Buster!

Some people have a knack for deciphering spoken sound — we say they have "fast ears." Others are forced through the "sound barrier" by circumstance, or pressure, or they have phenomenal self-discipline. But many more just give up, or jump from one study hamster wheel to the next, claiming "I'm just not good at languages." Does that sound familiar?

The Jiveworld Way

At Jiveworld we take the problem of natural listening seriously. You can't solve it with flashcards, or filling in the missing words, or studying and applying patterns and rules. Live conversation practice is great, but it's expensive, requires coordinating with a partner, and you won't cover the range of speaking styles and accents you'll encounter in real life.

When we started out, we knew we had to work backwards from real speech, and figure out how to make it digestible to the learner in a self-study environment. What we've learned so far and built into the Jiveworld app is substantial: countless delighted customers have attested to that. We'll dive into the details below, but let's be the first to say it's still a work-in-progress. We think you too will love the Jiveworld app, but know that what you see now is a year behind our latest research, and our research is ongoing. Designing and building great software takes time, and we take that seriously too.

Language learning is not solved, despite what many claim. Far from it. But we have broken new ground and we're excited to share that with you now.

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

The world is not made of atoms; [it] is made of stories.Muriel Rukeyser, from "The Speed of Darkness"

Much lip service is paid to the learning of a language in context, a word deriving from the Latin for weaving together. Yet many of the tools for language acquisition atomize a language into its words and grammar rules. Vocabulary flashcards are maybe the most egregious of these tools, and rely on memory hacking through spaced repetition. We can do better.

When context is preserved or introduced in language study resources, it's either at the most general level — cultural notes — or the textual level with collocations (common word groups) and sentences. Both of these are important, but there is one essential type of context that is missing, something so pervasive and important to our lives that we can't survive without it: the story.

The stories in Jiveworld aren't mere dialogs or sequences of actions: they are compelling narratives that have entertained and captivated millions of native listeners, created by some of the world's top radio producers. These stories entertain because we relate to the people in them: who they are, what they do, what happens to them, and how they survive and — we hope — thrive.

The point isn't that great stories make the learning more palatable, like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Yes, that is part of it. But more profoundly, great stories are memorable and this makes the language in them more sticky.

You know this intuitively. Just think of what you've carried with you since childhood — "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down" or "Grandma, what big teeth you've got!". We all have lines seared into our memories from movies and books and jokes and songs from decades ago. Learning through great stories is the best memory hack of all, and it's at the very heart of Jiveworld.

The duality in fluent listening

In the dance of yin and yang, each partner contributes to the other's completeness.Anonymous

All language learning products promise you fluency. It's understood that you understand what the word means, so it's rarely defined. You want to be able to speak a second language like you speak your first — on a good day — where elegant prose just happens: you have an intent and your mouth magically express it, like Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic.

The analog for listening fluency might be a pro surfer riding a point break, always in perfect balance on the board. That works: ocean waves, sound waves. But there's more to say about what's actually in harmony when you're listening well.

If, say, you're watching a movie in your native language, you're immersed in the dialog — not just the literal meaning, but also the pathos and humor: all the nuances. But at the same time you're also constructing the plot, building an overall model of meaning for the story. The structure emerges from the detail.

In contrast, when you're struggling with listening in another language you can get overwhelmed with the detail and literally lose the plot.

Detail vs structure: this duality is at the core of listening fluency, and Jiveworld. In fact we took inspiration from the ancient Taoist bagua symbol that represents the yin-yang (shadow and light) duality. We have two corresponding versions of the Jiveworld player:

  • Study Mode with a light (yang) theme, is an interactive player exposing vocabulary, speed controls, translations, and more precise navigation — allowing for exploration of the detail.
  • Natural Listen Mode with a dark (yin) visual theme, is a low-interaction "lean-back" player for integrated listening, where you focus on the gestalt — the overall story.

Depending on your proficiency level you may start with the Natural Listen Mode or the Study Mode. And there are different ways to listen when in Study Mode — you use the assistance you need at your level. But either way it's important to use the Natural Listen on each chapter before you proceed to the next. This is where the real sounds of the language will seep into your brain.

A labor of love

A story is not like a road to follow… it's more like a house.Alice Munro

When we receive a radio story for Jiveworld our editorial team meets to discuss how the story "works": the architecture of the plot both at the surface and underneath, that makes it compelling listening. This is crystalized into a story brief, and from there we divide the story into chapters, and the chapters into passages. Throughout this scaffolding process, we take care to preserve the natural story structure as it was designed by the original producer.

The chapters are the units of study, typically 2 to 4 minutes of audio. Within the app we have a study flow which guides you through each chapter with the appropriate player modes. Part of the assistance is in the form of passage hints — short descriptions, like conceptual road signs that help you follow the plot.

We then select vocabulary, chunking words into expressions where useful, and carefully crafting idiomatic definitions. We also look for irregular usage, and listen out for words and word groups that might be difficult to catch by ear for the learner, what we call tricky bits — all of which poke through the hidden transcript in our iconic X-ray mode.

Finally we add listening notes to the chapters to help you with cultural references, accents, or aspects of usage that might be helpful to a learner of the language.

Whenever we show a translation — in the vocabulary panel, in language examples, or in the full text translation panel — we take special care to translate idiom to idiom. Seeing the natural differences in expression in comparison to your native language helps raise your consciousness of how your target language really works.

In fact, there's much more still that goes into preparing a story for you, and very little of it is automated, otherwise the quality would suffer. Each minute of audio requires hours of editorial work before it's ready. The reason why Jiveworld is so loved by its customers is because of this artisanal attention to detail, which results in vastly more productive study and better retention.

We spend the time so you don't have to.


Tools are an extension of the hand and mind, and by becoming one with them, we can achieve great things.George Nakashima, from "The Soul of a Tree"

The last piece of the Jiveworld puzzle is the look and feel of the app — known as user experience design. There is a vast amount of vocabulary and other scaffolding available to you as you need it, and yet somehow the screen is uncluttered, even minimalist. This doesn't happen by accident: it comes from our dogged pursuit of flow.

Flow is a state of high productivity, when you're focused on a task using tools that you've mastered. It can apply to a chef, a writer, an athlete: anyone engaged in any endeavor — including learning. The word fluency derives from "flow" of course: you're wielding the tool of language to express yourself and interact with others productively.

Within the Jiveworld team we talk a lot about flow. Designing is an iterative process that we've spent years on, and will continue to do so for years more. Flow is a hard thing to point to: it's sometimes an absence of friction and noise. At other times we deliberately add friction in the form of a challenge, or in order to promote positive habits in language learning. An illustration will help.

An example: Smart Pause

When you study an audio story in a second language there's the temptation to pause immediately when you hear an unfamiliar word. Most media based learning apps — even Jiveworld's previous design — encourage this interaction. The learner sees an unfamiliar word during playback; taps it, pausing the player to show the definition; closes the popup — then playback resumes.

The problem with this design is that you are stopping and starting at arbitrary places in the sentence. If you're looking up a lot of words, it's particularly disorienting. This is not how we listen, and therefore not how we should practice listening.

Jiveworld's solution is the Smart Pause. When you encounter a new word and hit pause, it continues playing to the end of the sentence. Only then does it pop up the useful definitions. This is also a natural place to repeat the sentence (at snail-speed if you need) — which we enable with a single tap or key.

The simple modification encourages listening in complete sentences instead of broken fragments. It also creates a simpler and more elegant interface which makes it easier to use, helping you focus.

Smart Pause is just one of many features that help you get into a highly productive flow state.

...and there's more

Jiveworld makes it easy for you to set goals and track your progress. You can revisit the new words you've learned with vocabulary lists. And you get cultural and language notes so you can appreciate the stories at a more nuanced level.

Graduating to fluency

Before you know it, listening will be getting easier. You'll be speeding up the playback little by little, hiding the tricky bits, and looking up fewer words.

Finally you won't need Jiveworld, or any other language program. You'll be able to dive into authentic social situations with local people and you'll be improving without studying. You'll be Jiveworld fluent.

Try it today and see how it works, and let us know about your journey to fluency. Mastering a new language is a gift: it transforms us as individuals, and everyone we connect to through it.

It would be our honor to help you achieve your language goals.

Bon voyage!

Daniel, Joseph, and the Jiveworld team.