What is one thing that unites the human species — aside from the internet?
As human beings, we use words to express thoughts and evoke emotion. And when you have a language learning platform that breaks down physical borders and has the potential to unite a global community, it’s a very powerful thing.
Livemocha.com 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.
Sadly, the website is now defunct.
A Once Thriving Online Community
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.
I still remember when 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.
Yes, Livemocha was a godsend, but it wasn’t perfect. There were so many languages I wanted to learn that weren’t available. 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.
Connecting with My Roots — And the Rest of 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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 edited them for me. My flashcard sets were favourited dozens of times.
I wrote to Dr. Radice and thanked him for helping me learn Bengali and gain a new sense of awe toward 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 Bengali lessons, which were soon complete and ready for release. Some of my Irish friends also told me that they had finished creating the Gaelic lessons. But months passed and Livemocha never released them. I wondered what was going on.
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 Death of An Era
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. 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.
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.
The Future of Language Exchange
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.
Should Vanderydt launch his new website (currently in beta mode), it is to be based on the models of both SharedTalk and Livemocha. I wish him well.
Livemocha is gone for good, 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.
*Note: A more detailed version of this post is available on my personal blog.