2018-06-17

The Ignoble Truth of the Private Language Industry

When Motives Are Misaligned…

"Money makes the world go round." It's a hard fact of life. If only "money talks; bullshit walks" were also true in the language education industry. It still astounds me. There are so many texts, apps, businesses, and methods that are dedicated to learning languages. And yet, acquisition rates are abysmal. But, why? Why does expending so many resources not produce many fluent speakers?

The short answer is this: What motivates businesses and what motivates language learners have never, ever been aligned. Because of this, outcomes are terrible. History already tells us this. In all of Earth's civilizations, only three social phenomena have ever led to large populations becoming multilingual. In other words, a major event has to happen to a society to create one of three motives that compel language fluency.

Being Conquered, The Survival Motive

There's no secret to why the most common languages on Earth today are what they are. Go back any number of centuries. Choose any land where the people speak a language that wasn't their native-born tongue. I guarantee you that a ruler's ambition was at the head of it.

- "Your master gave you a name. It's a nice name. It's Toby!"
- "Yeah, whatever, cracker."
To give a graphic example for my mostly American audience, have you ever stopped to think how African slaves, whose native languages have almost no common features with English, learned English? I'll give you a hint. Slavers didn't sit them in quaint schoolhouses and drill them on grammar. In fact, teaching slaves to learn to read or write was illegal many Southern states. No, no. The earliest African slaves in America got their English education via the end of a whip. Why else do you suspect American blacks' derogatory term for whites literally means "one who cracks (a whip)"?

The point is, if an empire decides that newly conquered subjects shall speak their tongues or have them cut out, you can be sure that those subjects will have a pidgin by nightfall.

Being Converted, The Religious Motive

Nine million speakers and counting...
Unlike the survival motive, the religious motive is unique in that it's not always done through violence. Religions like Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism foreign languages in order to perform certain rites or be deemed true followers. Others, like Mormonism, Protestantism, and others require their missionaries to learn new languages to attract more followers.

It's different from a survival motive because the fears and ambitions involved are more psychological than physical. Those features compel people to indoctrinate others into their religions. And, since indoctrination requires a doctrine, and because a doctrine requires a language, the compulsion to learn a foreign language also arises. QED.

Being Connected, The Prosperity Motive

"Euh, je peux avoir de l'aide, s'il vous plait?"
Beyond those motives that impose language learning upon a population, there is also the drive to thrive internationally. Intrinsic desires for wealth, social contact, and so on are now people's main reasons for learning a foreign language. Most of this is due to internationalization, which has increased the number of foreign dealings, bilingual households, and such. So, more and more people push themselves to acquire foreign languages to serve their personal goals.

For instance, I started teaching myself Mandarin because I wanted to pursue Chinese philosophy in graduate school in Taiwan. I didn't appreciate learning Mandarin in its own right until a couple of years later.

Okay, but why can't private businesses fit their models to these motives?

Well, private businesses can't force us to submit to a ruler, so the survival motive is out. That leaves the religious and prosperity motives. There are some religious groups that freely teach or require competence in their sanctified languages. However, they're less likely to outsource their instruction to third parties. And, even if businesses did cater to these motives, they can only appeal to them. Since they're businesses first, most appeal to the prosperity motive. For example, in countries where English is in demand, they often promote it as an "investment" because English is the international commerce language. In more affluent monolingual countries, they often promote foreign languages for use in social settings, vacations abroad, and so forth.

That, however, is a tiny problem when compared to the motive that corrupts private businesses' proper objectives:

Getting Rich, The Profit Motive

"Ah, so you want to learn English, eh?"
It may surprise you, but language experts do not start most education businesses. Instead, people found them with a single goal: Get rich. In every place I've worked, among the company presidents and CEO's with whim I've interacted, not one had even a basic grasp of the relevant linguistics. Many made their wealth in totally unrelated industries. Then, they opened an "institute", built an app, shit out PowerPoint presentations, or slapped some other crap together, and hocked their wares to the masses.

Normally, this is not a bad thing. A free market allows businesses to compete for customers. And, competition produces better and better products at lower and lower prices. Bullshit products and services then slowly die off. At least, that's how it should work.

There's just one flaw in that reasoning regarding the language education industry. Business owners are obsessed with customer retention; and, if their products produced fluent speakers, it would kill retention.

So private language businesses profit more by not teaching languages?

Exactly! Think about what would happen if enough speakers already knew a formerly foreign language. Bilingual parents would breed bilingual children. Those children would gain their language skills in their homes, churches, or public school curricula. The demand for future students would decline. And, in a generation, private language educators would lose most of their profits.

Almost all private language businesses function under this perverse incentive. That means that these businesses can't sell what learners actually want. It also means that what people buy from this industry is mostly bullshit. It's not because there isn't demand. It's because perverse incentives lead producers to limit the supply.

What the hell are private language businesses selling, then?

"Got the mumps? The bumps?
Those sticky, tricky clumps?
Why, I've got the perfect remedy!
Native speakers!
A world-class curriculum!
That perfect learning formula!
And language fluency in 30 days!
Guaranteed*!"

* Disclaimer: Results may vary.
Well, what they actually sell differs somewhat. Some "learning centers" just sell glorified day care services. Some sell the mere exposure to native speakers. Some sell overpriced materials, most of which are too incompetently designed to even be called "educational". But, they all sell one thing prior to all of that. Like any snake oil salesmen, the majority of language businesses sell the feeling of language acquisition. Their products and services are mere placebos. They make you feel like you're learning a foreign language. Many students leave a classroom or complete a textbook with psychological impression that they've learned a language. However, that impression is short-lived, and learners confront that harsh reality once they try out their shoddy language skills outside of a classroom.

Many language learners, unfortunately, reach a false conclusion: "It's not that the snake oil doesn't work. I just didn't drink enough of it," they tell themselves. So, they return to their bullshit dealer of choice to get another fix. People's mass self-deception guarantees the customer retention that language businesses owners crave. That's why, in so many of these businesses, the first lesson is always free.

The consequences for most language learners, though, is damning. Many convince themselves that languages are just too difficult to learn, even though practically everyone acquires at least one language without much difficulty. For many, the placebo effect wears off, and they quit, but either surrender themselves to their ignorance, or desperately seek out another placebo. And those business owners, who never cared whether you succeeded or failed, gladly take your money, and then hunt for the next group to emotionally exploit. To call them scum would be an insult to scum.

Wait, why should anyone trust you?
You built an app. You have a profit motive.

It's true. I did build an app with a hope to profit from it. However, some of us learned not to be deceptive cretins in the process.

First, I don't promote my app in the traditional, scummy way. For instance, I don't fill my users with false hope. Language acquisition takes effort and time. PollyGot is just one way to approach foreign languages intelligently. But, the private industry surrounding this process has muddied the waters with stupid catchphrases, with "guarantees" that no one could possibly guarantee, and with bells, whistles, and antics that are irrelevant to language acquisition. It's practically axiomatic: Any language product or service that starts with a sales pitch is, beyond any doubt, absolute bullshit.

This is why I didn't take out any loans for PollyGot. It's why I learned to code and built the damned thing, myself. I avoided the trap of entrepreneurship. I don't have a business loan to repay. I paid, instead, with my time and energy. I also don't have superiors breathing deadlines down my neck. I was able to take my time, test my work, scrap projects that sucked, and build them up again. I was able to operate freely, and held to the old maxim, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

It's not only that, though. I didn't build my app with the vision of building a business. I built it with the vision of solving a problem. That's what these other dipshits don't fucking get. The point of a language product isn't customer retention. The point of a language product is for the world not to need language products. You leave the boat behind once you've crossed the river, but these business fucks sell you a leaky boat, and then try selling you all kinds of buckets and paddles instead of fixing the goddamned boat. Now you know why. Private language businesses, deep down, want you to sink, and they don't care if you drown.

“嘿,我聽説你們這些大陸人
都想改善自己的呼吸能力。”
"Hey, I hear you Mainland Chinese want
to improve your breathing ability."
To me, selling someone a language product is like selling a suffocating man air. Languages aren't a commodity. They're essential, and they're not scarce. Not even functional approaches are scarce. Functional approaches are just made artificially scarce. Hell, I made a comfortable living selling curricular approaches that I had rejected as incomplete to lots of my former employers and contractors. Because, really, fuck 'em! They didn't give a damn about what works and what doesn't. They only cared about what sold well.

Second, PollyGot costs people nothing. I even worked to make it not cost bandwidth, and I decided against running banner ads in it. Instead, its sole financial support will come from donations and Patreon sponsorships. If people are personally moved to pay me to work on my products exclusively, with no sales pressure or constant begging, that's a proper signal that people are getting use out of it. My endgame is to build a language product that ends language products. Mass bankruptcy of the surrounding language industry, including mine, is my goal.

Or, someone else will achieve this before me. I won't mind. At least they'll have the proper motives.

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