2018-12-07

Liulishuo Huang (流利說謊);
Or, Lying Fluently

When Bullshit Blows the Cow (吹牛)

You know, I honestly wanted to lay off blowhard programmers who pretend to be language gurus. I thought Duolingo was example enough. Luis von Ahn showed dick for linguistic knowledge in his TEDx talk. Instead, he pulled the con: "I'm a computer genius. I have a vision. Give me money." Then, he removed the only good thing about Duolingo (the part that translated websites). Then, he sold ignorant people a shitty pile of quizzes that were built for a separate purpose. Surely, people won't fall for that again, will they?

Well, fuck my luck! Some Chinese guy copied the exact same bullshit formula. His name is Wang Yi (王翌), and he's not just any language industry fraud. No, no! He worked for Google for not even two years. A project manager, very nice! The project was about language learning, right? I'm betting not. Even if it were, it's not like he mattered to it. Product managers are middlemen between coders and corporate folk. They don't build the software. They don't even come up with the ideas. They just get products out on time and under budget. Sound like he's too focused on business to care about language learning? Seem like he probably doesn't know shit about language education? Bingo! He's yet another a snake oil salesman.

It's all here in an interview he did in March:


"So, that’s something that I’ve sort of got off the plane and started really observing the local market when we saw the need. But then, we thought, 'Okay, mobile is surging.' Pretend you’re in May of 2012 in China, you saw this karaoke app named 'Changba' really surging. At first, I thought, 'It’s stupid. Who would be singing to their cell phones?' But, apparently a lot of people did across different age groups. […]
"And I thought this built-in microphone thing is really unique. It could change people’s behavior. So, we thought, 'Okay, if they were so into singing into their cell phones, maybe they could also practice English. But then, how can we make them stick? So, we thought, Angry Bird [sic] was very popular at the time. Can we gamify it? What would be the key elements of gamification that we could use? Instant feedback. So, what kind of instant feedback? Maybe some feedback on their pronunciation to keep their score, to give them some indication of how good their pronunciation is.' At that time, I called my college buddy Lin Hui who was a research scientist at Google in Mountain View back then, specializing in speech recognition and data mining. I’m like, 'Hey, can you do this?' He said, 'Yeah, of course.' And, I’m like, 'Okay, so why don’t we do something together?'" -- Wang Yi, a program manager at Google for 22 months
Did you catch that? He got the idea from a goddamned karaoke app! He didn't even question himself. He didn't go, "Maybe I should check some literature. I should see if my idea makes any fucking sense." Nope, he shit it out, called it gold, and then called Lin Hui to do the actual work.

Also, in case you were wondering, that idea is shit. Implicit corrective feedback is okay. There's a problem, though. Liulishuo's design doesn't provide corrective feedback. It just judges your output as it pushes you along. That's Wang Yi's "gamification". The came is called, "Guess What My Database Wants To Hear". Confusing report cards with corrective feedback only proves that Wang Yi and Lin Hui are Chinese. Calling report card generation a "game"? That just proves that they don't know what fun is.

Meh, he spun his bio and didn't do any real research. Big deal!

Yeah, what matters is if Liulishuo actually works. Oh, wait.

His Staged Interview Showed That Liulishuo Doesn't Really Work

"She [my mother] is literal [sic] addicted to the app now, and sometimes even enlists my help when she's stuck at a certain level." -- Zara Zhang. an investment analyst at GGV Capital and a former journalist 
This is clearly an unbiased report from an objective former journalist. It couldn't be that GGV Capital got Liulishuo (LAIX) its seed money, and then got GGV podcasters to kiss Wang Yi's ass in an "interview". An objective journalist admits that her own mother gets "stuck" and needs her to make up for Liulishuo's defects. Never you mind that, though! Wang Yi went to Princeton. He worked for Google. He put AI in his app. He shot an 18 on his first golf game. Okay, one of those isn't true. He didn't really put AI in the app. "AI" is just a buzzword for stuff that's existed for decades. The only "AI" in Wang Yi's app comes from his users who grumble, "唉呀……"

More to the point, though, just listen to Wang Yi, himself. He claims that Liulishuo improves English pronunciation. Really? Let's listen to a sample:


Tell me, native English speakers, does his "pronounciation" impress you? Do you think, "Wow! He looks Chinese, but he sounds like he's from Houston!" Or, does it sound like he's using Chinese phonemes to approximate American English ones? (Answer: The latter.)

What about his grammar? Not perfect, but forgivable. He's still not mastered English's grammatical number agreements. Chinese expresses grammatical number very differently. It takes appropriate input, feedback, and experimentation to learn it. However, none of Liulishuo's exercises specifically correct it. Worse still, since "feedback" equals grading in this frog's well, he'll never get the feedback that he needs.

We can note, though, that he speaks fluidly and has a strong vocabulary. Of course, he also got his PhD from Princeton. Last I checked, Princeton's doctoral candidates write their theses in English. And, surprise, surprise! His computer science thesis was not on computational or corpus linguistics.

I will say this to his credit: There's real artistry in his con artistry. Of course, any research into his life and work shows that he's not qualified to develop a language-learning app. He's pretty fluent in English, and that's it. Big fucking whoop! I know Mexican farmers more fluent than this guy. The difference is that they can't say (and omit) things like:
  1. "I graduated from Princeton (in an unrelated field)."
  2. "I worked for Google (for 22 months)."
  3. "We have the biggest archive of (badly accented) Chinese speakers of English."
That pales in comparison to this fact:

Wang Yi Hocks His ESL Wares In China

Not Singapore, not Hong Kong, China. Why? He'd probably say it's because he's from the Mainland. But, what's more likely is that those other places check credentials. China and Taiwan are rife with bullshitters like Wang Yi. Wang Yi ironically complains about this, himself. People there blow cash on expensive, ineffective instruction. Wang Yi's response? Get them to blow cash on less expensive, ineffective instruction.

The fact is that East Asia's ESL industry is decades behind. That's reflected in virtually every for-profit ESL company there. In China and Taiwan, alone, VIPKid, Bright Scholar, Wall Street English, 51Talk, TutorABC, SayABC, Alo7, HESS, and many, many more make insultingly bad materials. Also, they treat their employees like garbage. Often, it's hard to say which reeks worse — their disgusting materials, their corporate arrogance, or their false idol worship. All of their founders, like Wang Yi, just wanted to make a quick yuan. They see that they can sell the false promise of a key competence to a naive public. All of their founders, like Wang Yi, know fuck-all about multilingualism. I know this because I've talked with many of them. I've read the bios (in English and Mandarin) of the rest. Half of them aren't even bilingual. Wang Yi is no different. His bullshit is just a different shade of brown. He pretends to have some "AI" secret to "automating" ESL instruction. He doesn't. He just knows that those words make businessmen's dicks hard these days. If East Asians become even partly aware of sensible ESL pedagogy, Wang and the rest will all be bankrupt in a year.

Liulishuo:
When you want your bad ESL ideas mashed together.
There's a reason why China's main exports are American products, raw materials, and knockoff goods. Neither China's culture nor government prize original thinking. Our Western innovation steers the majority of their economy. When products of that innovation reach them, they reverse-engineer them. Then, they build knockoffs and pawn them on people who don't know or don't care if they're fake. They treat education the same way. Wang definitely did. He saw some popular ideas, tossed them together, and called it "innovation". He then insulted our intelligence with a crap app, a clipped bio, and some big talk. To quote Dennis Miller, "To call him a scumbag would be an insult to bags of scum."

I personally can't wait for the hype to die and his business to fail. He'll have deserved nothing less. Hopefully, exposing him as a fraud will help push the inevitable.

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