How Vancouver-based language app LingQ evolves in a changing market

From embracing a YouTube personality to leveraging AI, the company has found its niche in a crowded market.

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Hundreds of platforms offer the ability to teach you a language, but few have been around as long as local business LingQ. Since 2008, the company has adapted to all evolutions of the language-learning industry, from web to mobile, and, today, the use of social media and AI to attract new users and improve its product.

“A lot of our success is due to paying attention to what's happening and staying with it — continuing to work away and evolve the product,” said co-founder and CEO Mark Kaufmann. “I'd say our language-learning approach has been relatively constant. But just the way we've harnessed technology, both existing and new as it comes along, [has helped our success].”

Building a unique brand in a competitive market

Mark Kaufmann first co-founded LingQ, pronounced ‘link’, in 2008 with his father, Steve Kaufmann. Steve is a polyglot who now speaks 20 languages, largely thanks to the LingQ learning method. The protocol focuses on language immersion through input materials — reading and listening to native language resources — in contrast to other platforms such as Duolingo, which emphasizes vocabulary.

Steve, also known as Lingosteve on social platforms, has grown into a YouTube personality with over 760,000 subscribers on the site. His videos range from language-learning tips and tricks to conversations with featured guests in other languages such as Japanese, Russian, and Swedish. “Steve is at the forefront of pushing the LingQ methodology for learning languages,” said Eric Roberts, marketing manager at the company. “​​Because Steve can speak all these different languages, getting interviews with other non-English speaking influencers also helped make him as big as he is today.”

Steve Kaufmann, co-founder of LingQ. Photo: Eric Roberts, LingQ

Steve’s success as a YouTube influencer happened organically, said Mark Kaufmann, especially thanks to the credibility of his fluency. “My dad likes to talk about languages and is obviously very passionate about it,” he said. “And he’s very happy to share his approach. And so it was kind of a natural fit [...] He’s got his brand, it's genuine. And the message is a good message: that everyone can learn [a language] and it can be enjoyable.”

LingQ isn’t the only player in the language-learning app space, but having a YouTube personality sets the company apart. In an industry that generated just over $8 billion dollars in 2021, hundreds of other companies look to uniquely market themselves to language-learners. “Because people have so many choices, you need a significant volume of traffic to get enough people to try your product and like your product and upgrade,” said Mark Kaufmann. “Steve is our number-one marketing channel in general, with YouTube being the biggest driver.”

Capitalizing on favourable market conditions with ChatGPT

COVID was a unique time in LingQ’s history, added Steve Kaufmann. It was during this period that the company focused on making his videos as good as they could be. “During COVID, a lot of people were locked down and YouTube usage was going through the roof,” he said.

Although audiences have largely emerged from their pandemic-induced YouTube binges, the momentum is still in favour of LingQ. “Even on Instagram or on TikTok, there's just more and more people looking in those places for that kind of [language-learning] content,”Steve Kaufmann added.

With the increased enthusiasm for learning languages, the LingQ team is particularly excited about improving their product through the applications of AI. “The potential for ChatGPT to further increase the ease with which people can [...] learn language from us is amazing,” said Mark Kaufmann. “There's an [OpenAI] tool called Whisper, which is a transcription-generation tool that we're now working to integrate.”

A key component of LingQ’s platform is the ability to learn through written or audio content that’s published for native speakers. The applications of Whisper to generate transcripts for speech is a game-changer, said Mark Kaufmann.

“There's so many great podcasts out there, and we require a transcript on LingQ for you to be able to use that podcast to learn from,” he said as an example. “If we can generate transcripts that automatically allow you to study those podcasts, that opens up this massive range of interesting content. It allows the learner the ability to find the podcast that they're interested in, because people aren't interested in the same things. And if you can find content that you’re specifically interested in, on whatever topic that might be, that's very motivating as a language-learner.”

Competition drives developers forward

While there may be hundreds of other options to learn languages, the LingQ team believes that the competition is good for the industry as a whole. “I think the more apps there are, the more people look to apps to learn languages, the more people enjoy and have success — I think that benefits all of us in this space, to be honest,” said Mark Kaufmann.

Part of the reason for the optimism is that everyone has different preferences when it comes to learning a language, and some platforms are better at different stages of the learning journey than others. “I suspect we get a lot of people that have been on Duolingo,” said Mark Kaufmann. “And for whatever reason are moving on and looking for a solution that will take them farther or that they prefer.”

“When people learn about Duolingo, and want to learn a language, they'll also probably come across LingQ at some point,” said Roberts. “It benefits the whole community.”

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