In its heyday, Livemocha.com was a revolutionary online language learning website. Sadly, the website is now defunct.
I owe a lot to Livemocha. The thriving community allowed anyone, anywhere with an internet connection, to learn a language for free. You chose from the languages that they had available, and started with introductory lessons that included online flashcards. You were taught a short phrase, shown a picture that corresponded with that phrase, and also an audio recording which provided the correct pronunciation. After the lessons, you were tested on your knowledge. Could you match the correct phrase to the picture? As you advanced, so did the lessons.
A Thriving Online Community
Here’s where the community aspect became crucial. After your test, you had to write a few lines in the language you were learning, using the words or phrases you just learned. You were then given some sentences in that language to read out loud using your microphone. After you sent in your submissions, a native speaker of that language would review your work, while you were given the opportunity to critique the work of someone else who was trying to learn your native tongue. There were also opportunities to engage in both typing and voice chats with people who spoke the language of your choice.
Livemocha was more than just an instructional site. It was like Goodreads, but for linguaphiles instead of bookworms. It was an online network of language lovers who wanted to explore another culture. I made many pen pals on the site, some of whom I keep in touch with to this day.
Raghav Kher, Shirish Nadkarni and Krishnan Seshadrinathan founded Livemocha in 2007 over a brainstorming session at a cafe, and the name was meant to evoke the relaxed learning environment of a coffee shop. By the time I became a member in 2011, it only seemed to be growing. You could choose from 38 different languages, including languages with different alphabets such as Russian, Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic. Indeed, Livemocha seemed more like a crowded, downtown Tim Hortons than a mom-and-pop independent cafe. I tried my hand at a few different languages. Quickly, I became a Livemocha addict.
My love of Livemocha stemmed from something deeper. I turned to the website for comfort during a difficult time in my life. I was about to graduate from university and had a final mandatory course with a difficult English professor. She laughed in our faces and called us stupid. She would mock students with disabilities. She gave us two-hour exams with eight essay questions — impossible to pass regardless of your speed with the pen. She was evil in the flesh. But I needed to pass her class if I wanted to graduate.
I turned to Livemocha because I wanted something else to focus my energy toward. Something I could control. Something that would make me feel intellectually challenged rather than intellectually drained. I began with Spanish, whipping through the cyber classes to take my mind off of my troubles in the real world. Within months, I could hold a conversation en español. This was a big confidence boost after Evil personified had done so much to bring me down.
Still, I was filled with so much anxiety over finishing my degree. Here I was, about to graduate on the Dean’s list, and Dr. Evil was jeopardizing my future. I was given no choice but to do the unthinkable. I dropped Evil’s class and explained my situation to the department head, who offered me the opportunity substitute the mandatory class with an English elective I could take over the summer due to the extenuating circumstances. When my colleagues quickly began dropping out as well, they were offered the same option by the sympathetic department head.
I was finally facing my real world problems, but my love for Livemocha still wasn’t quelled. Now that I had a good grasp of Spanish (useful, should I ever decide to see more of the Americas), I decided to delve into French, and even Hindi — because why not?
I was also very active in the community when it came to editing the work of others. I was an English major and I wanted to be an editor, so I considered this practice for when I entered the workforce. Because our edits could be rated for helpfulness to weed out rude people and trolls within the community, my in-depth edits quickly got me ranked as a top teacher in English. I still remember that someone in Panama named Sergio would regularly send me his work to rank, and he helped me in turn. I never quite got into the other languages the way that I got into Spanish. The Spanish community on Livemocha was thriving, and a lot of Spanish speakers wanted to learn English, so it was a good match.
There was a post floating around the Livemocha blog about the different ways that Livemocha was better than its pricey competitor, Rosetta Stone. Other bloggers weighed in. Those of us who were avid Livemocha users thought there was no comparison at all.
A Website that Inspired Wanderlust
Livemocha awakened my sense of wanderlust. Now that I knew Spanish, I would be comfortable pretty much anywhere in the Americas. And now that I had dropped Dr. Evil’s class, I was free to travel when I saw advertisements around my university for an extracurricular trip to Ghana. I signed up right away. I was going to see Africa! I thanked Krishna for giving me the professor from hell in my final year of university. In ways that she couldn’t have imagined, she had opened many doors for me.
Yes, Livemocha was a godsend, but it wasn’t perfect. There were so many languages I wanted to learn that weren’t available. I wanted to learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Bengali. Who knows? I would have even learned Twi (a language spoken in Ghana) if it was available.
None of those languages were offered, but through Livemocha’s chat feature, you could search for people who spoke a language of your choice and ask them if they wanted to chat with you. Not many spoke Scottish Gaelic, but Irish Gaelic was alive and well, and Bengali is the seventh most spoken language in the world.
Using the chat feature, I met a man from Kolkata, India named Subrata. He was an Indian nationalist, a proud Hindu, and did a lot to promote Bengali within the Livemocha community. There was a section where you could show the world photos from your country to give people an insight into where you lived, and Subrata made everyone fall in love with Mother India with his gorgeous pictures.
Connecting with My Roots
There was also a feature to create your own flash cards, and since Livemocha didn’t offer Bengali lessons, Subrata had created Bengali flashcards with words written both phonetically in English and in the Bengali script, which is different from Devanagari (the Hindi script, also used in India’s ancient language of Sanskrit). I saved his flashcards as favourites so that I could refer to them and study them frequently.
Bengal is known as a literary centre within India, and Bengali is known as the romance language of the East. Bengal has produced many great writers, philosophers, and poets, including Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Bengal is also the home of Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and of course Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. There is even a subgenre of Bengali poetry dedicated to lyricising Radha’s emotion for Lord Krishna.
I learned a lot of this information from Subrata and other polyglots in the Livemocha community. An American named Jeffrey who had taken a university course in Bengali emailed me a .PDF book of spiritual Bengali poems from the 1500s that his professor had assigned for the course, but regretted telling me that he couldn’t help me much more than that because his Bengali was far from fluent. I thanked him and told him that I was excited for the day that Livemocha would announce free Bengali lessons. He told me not to hold my breath.
Subrata inspired me in many ways. Like him, I began uploading pictures of my country. I took pictures around my city, in grocery stores, and inside buses, mostly for my Latin American pen pals who wanted to see what everyday life was like here in Canada.
I also started creating my own flashcards. I found a book at my local library called Teach Yourself Bengali, written by Dr. William Radice, a senior lecturer in Bengali at the University of London. I learned the script and went above and beyond Subrata’s flashcards, creating several flashcard sets with themes like “animals,” “clothing,” and even “verbs.” I used clip art, spelled the words out phonetically in English and in the Bengali script, and also added audio clips of myself pronouncing the words in both English and Bengali.
I showed the cards to Subrata, who said “bah bah” (wow), and he edited them for me. My flashcard sets were favourited dozens of times — even more than Subrata’s. 😉
I wrote to Dr. Radice and thanked him for helping me learn Bengali and gain a deeper understanding of my heritage. I also told him about how I had created Livemocha flashcards to help others. I got an email back from his assistant telling me that he was thrilled to get my email, but couldn’t write directly because he was so wrapped up with celebrations for Tagore’s 150th anniversary.
The Beginning of the End
In Livemocha’s “ask” section, a woman finally wrote to Livemocha’s admin and requested lessons for “the romance language of the East.” Her request was upvoted by hundreds of people, including me. Finally, it was answered by Livemocha staff, with a yes. Livemocha also announced that they would release a course in Irish Gaelic.
I was over the moon. Subrata and other community members began working with Livemocha on translating the lessons, which were soon complete and ready for release. Some of my Irish friends also told me that they had finished the Gaelic lessons. But months passed and Livemocha never released them. I wondered what was going on.
This didn’t stop me from singing Livemocha’s praises to anyone who would listen. When I went to Africa, I told the other students about how I had taught myself Spanish using a cool free website. When I took my final English course during summer school, I told my classmates about how Livemocha had inspired me to travel. One girl in the class wanted to come with me on a road trip to celebrate our graduation. My professor told me that it was a great idea, and recounted her experience taking the train all the way across Canada when she was eighteen.
“You should see the world when you’re young,” she told me.
She was an extremely nice professor; the polar opposite of Dr. Evil.
I finished her class with an A+, graduated cum laude, and took a trip across the country. I took many pictures from all over the country to upload onto Livemocha’s photo sharing application. With my new pics of the Rocky Mountains, the prairies, and the coastline, I was giving Subrata’s shots of breathtaking Indian scenery a run for their money.
Over half of Dr. Evil’s students dropped her class, even though it was compulsory. She was demoted.
On April 2, 2013, Rosetta Stone acquired Livemocha for a paltry $8.5 million. They ruined the layout and interface, removed many of the community features, and changed the services from “free” to “paid.” Many wrote angry letters to Rosetta Stone, who replied that they were committed to keeping the community alive and offering affordable lessons. We saw through the lies immediately, even though for a short while, through what Rosetta fittingly called “Livemocha’s legacy site,” I could still access those flashcards I had worked so hard on, which were now left there to linger in an obscure part of cyberspace, unused. A ghostly reminder of Livemocha’s great past.
A year later, in December of 2014, I finally visited Cuba, my first Latin American country. But I couldn’t use Livemocha to brush up on my skills before I left. I took to YouTube and listened to Spanish music to keep myself sharp.
The Future of Language Exchange
What Rosetta didn’t realize is that Livemocha didn’t work because it was affordable. It worked because it was free. There were paid lessons for those who wanted to advance further, but you could get extremely far without paying a dime due to the community involvement. Without the community, the Livemocha model didn’t work. And the community hated Rosetta, so we walked. Livemocha.com remained an active url for the time being, but it was a completely dead website that Rosetta hadn’t done much with. We all knew that soon, even the “legacy” site would be discontinued.
I was confused. How could this happen? Livemocha knew that they were better than Rosetta Stone, who just wanted to buy the competition and sell it for parts because they felt threatened. For a while, I moved to SharedTalk, a language-learning chat room that Rosetta eventually bought in 2015.
Bernard Vanderydt, founder of SharedTalk and former Rosetta Stone employee, had this to say about SharedTalk’s acquisition and eventual abandonment:
As far as I know (and I followed these events closely), Rosetta Stone hasn’t disclosed the exact reason behind abandoning SharedTalk.com. I doubt they ever will. It was simply closed down on August 31st, thus leaving a large community of users behind. In the email notification they sent, they redirect users to Livemocha, which has a much different set of features that I don’t think will convince the SharedTalk audience.
There is a clear demand for such a service and, in response to the closing, I’m working on providing a new platform for language exchange.
Should Vanderydt ever launch his new website, it is to be based on the models of both SharedTalk and Livemocha. I wish him well.
Livemocha was beautiful because it connected the globe. Rosetta Stone’s model was elitist and based around people in the first world who wanted to learn the languages of the third world. Livemocha was for everybody who wanted to learn everything.
Unfortunately, our instincts about Rosetta Stone proved correct. On Friday, April 22, 2016, Rosetta Stone announced that they would close Livemocha permanently. When you type “Livemocha.com” into your search bar, you’re now redirected to Rosetta Stone.
And thus marks the death of an era.
There are other language exchange websites that are similar to Livemocha, although not quite as good. Some Livemocha members asked me to meet them on Busuu. There’s still Meetup.com, where you can join or start a language-centered group in your vicinity. There’s also YouTube, a platform through which I was able to find many channels for learning Spanish and French, and of course, there’s the local library.
The Golden Age of Livemocha may be behind us, but I firmly believe that someway, somehow, the language exchange revolution must continue to push forward. The world is more connected now than ever, and though Livemocha’s members are still reeling from its discontinuation, we remain fixed in our values of global community, cultural exchange, travel, and the desire to become polyglots.
Goodbye, Livemocha. You will be missed.