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In the news: Web startup crosses the language barrier

The Toronto Star reports that two MBA grads, Danny Wang and Barbara Tassa, are hoping to revolutionize the way people in China learn English through their new web video business. Called WeblishPal, the system connects Chinese learners with native English speakers half a world away for real-time video chats.

The idea came out of Wang’s own experience. After studying English for more than 10 years at school in Sichuan province, Wang thought he had a fair grasp of the language. He could read English books and had memorized dozens of grammar rules.

But the software engineer had a rude awakening when he immigrated to Canada in 2000.

Wang couldn’t understand native English speakers and they couldn’t understand him. “My English was so bad I couldn’t even open a bank account,” he says. It took regular interactions with English speakers to make him fluent.

Wang sees the traditional classroom method as “crazily inadequate” and a big problem for the millions of Chinese eager to learn English.

“Our teachers can’t speak English well. In a typical class, where you share the teacher with at least 50 other students, the teacher reads a paragraph from an English book, explains what it means in Chinese, then asks grammar questions in Chinese. You have nobody to practise speaking English with.”

Commercial language centres aren’t accessible for many, and private tutoring is prohibitively expensive.

In 2009, in an entrepreneurship class at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Wang pitched the idea of a web-based language-learning business. The class voted to pursue the idea.

The initiative attracted fellow classmate Barbara Tassa, who had emigrated from Estonia as a child.“Learning English was not as hard for me as for my parents, but I still remember that process of having to switch my thinking over from one language to another,” Tassa says.

While Wang’s background is in software engineering — he designed China’s first package-tracking software — Tassa’s strength is marketing. She has five years of experience in consulting, market research and sales.

“He’s technical, I’m business,” she says.

They submitted the business plan to the 2010 IBK Capital-Ivey Business Plan Competition held a year ago at the University of Western Ontario, Canada’s top business plan competition for graduate students. They won third prize.

That’s almost unheard of for a business that was still in the idea stage, says Becky Reuber, professor of strategic management at Rotman. “To have a business on paper, with no customers, winning third prize is just huge,” she says, adding the first-prize winners already had revenues of $100,000.

Reuber, who taught Wang and Tassa’s entrepreneurship class, says WeblishPal’s potential was clear from the beginning. “I look for three things in a business plan: Is the value for both sides (seller and buyer) easily understood? Are the economics there — are they likely to make money? And are they able to do it really, really well, so competitors don’t come in and do it better?” WeblishPal is readily understood, easily tried out and fills a gap, Reuber says.

Video conversations make good sense linguistically as well, experts say. “By watching the teacher’s mouth move and seeing the associated facial expressions, a student can understand words more easily,” says linguist and corporate terminologist Lindsay Martin, who has taught English as a second language on three continents.

Martin says Chinese learners often have difficulty with liquid sounds such as L and R. For one group of Asian students she taught, the names “Ellen” and “Erin” sounded identical. “But by seeing the shape of the mouth and copying it, they could distinguish the different sounds.”

Personalized classes allow a teacher to tailor a lesson to a student’s particular requirements, whether it’s listening comprehension, speed of talking, accent reduction, acquiring terms for a specific field of study such as engineering or medicine, or learning Canadian cultural idioms such as “the May 2-4 weekend,” “It’s cold out, eh?” and “I’ll have a medium double-double.”

On WeblishPal (, which has Chinese and English versions, a learner may choose a teacher from among hundreds of written bios and video profiles and email him or her directly. Together, teacher and student decide on the time, frequency, topic and even price of lessons.

The video-chat technology is embedded in the site, so all that’s needed at each end is a computer and Internet access. Learners in China purchase their lesson through AliPay, now the world’s largest third-party online payment system, and teachers withdraw their earnings through PayPal.

Teachers can charge whatever they want, but typical rates for a half-hour lesson are $10 or $15, from which WeblishPal takes a 20 percent cut.

The company doesn’t check teachers’ credentials — it’s buyer beware, as with any online transaction — but, just as buyers and sellers can rate one another on eBay, WeblishPal users can post ratings.

WeblishPal targets three groups in China: students who plan to study abroad; young professionals working for international companies such as Microsoft or Intel who need to communicate with colleagues in North America; and parents eager to give their children an edge.

Every year 300 million Chinese study English, says Wang, in an industry worth $3 billion. The Chinese population in Canada is projected to grow to between 2.4 and 3 million by 2031, up from its current 1.3 million.

WeblishPal sounds similar to its Chinese name, wang yu ba, which means “net language bar.” It’s a catchy name, Wang says: “The Chinese name is very easy to speak and memorize.”

Wang and Tassa are pursuing a strong presence for WeblishPal on Facebook and Twitter, as well as equivalent social media in China, such as the massive Renren. They’re also setting up partnerships with ESL schools and designing marketing campaigns for China.

Valen Yan is a 32-year-old former marketing manager in Shanghai who wants to improve her English so she can apply to an MBA program abroad. She had her first WeblishPal online lesson in late February. “I am very satisfied with the class,” she emailed in response to interview questions, adding her teacher was kind and patient. “She typed the words for me what I cannot get through voice.

“What I get far exceeds what I paid. Without WeblishPal, it’s impossible for me to find a foreign language tutor with such limited money.”

The site attracted her initially because it was a genuine language-learning site and not a covert dating site. “I believe it is truthful for person who want to improve English and not for finding a date mate,” she wrote.

Most of the 400 teachers who have registered with WeblishPal are from Canada and the United States. So far, Veronika Wrona of Toronto has taught two classes to student George Zhang of Shanghai, who works for IBM in China and is doing his MBA part-time. “It’s great because we talk about business, like the value of an MBA in North America,” says Wrona, who has an MBA and works as a business development associate with an IT company.

While her student’s reading and writing skills are excellent — she forwarded him an article from The Economist for a later discussion — his speaking skills are halting. “He’s thinking in Mandarin and then translating. I know how that is because I did exactly the same thing in Polish,” says Wrona, who emigrated from Poland as a child.

They’ve arranged the lessons at a mutually convenient time: Sundays, 10 a.m. her time, 11 p.m. his time.

“To me this isn’t a way of making money,” says Wrona, who opted to charge only $5 per lesson. “It’s actually a really fun experience.”

Since the Chinese website launched two months ago, it’s acquired more than 500 registered users. Wang estimates the potential market at 100 million users.

While the focus is currently on China, WeblishPal may eventually be rolled out to other markets, such as India, Japan, Korea, Latin America and beyond.

Both Wang and Tassa work full-time, he as a software architect, she as a sales rep. But they devote every spare second to WeblishPal. “When you feel passionate about something, you want to see it happen,” says Tassa.

The two work well together despite their differences, or perhaps because of them — he’s 40, quiet, married, with a second child on the way, while she’s 28, extroverted and single. Their skills and styles are complementary, they say, which is ideal for targeting a diverse market.

“People say that creating a startup together is like having a baby together,” says Tassa. “I don’t know about that, but we did literally create something from nothing.

“We think there’s only one way to go from here and that’s up.”

For the original article click here.

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