Meet Startup @TW

Lingvist: AI-powered language learning coming to Taiwan

PChome

Currently available in 13 languages ranging from English to Portuguese, internet-based language platform Lingvist has already accumulated more than 450,000 international users.
Following its recent partnership with PChome company LinkTel, Lingvist is entering the Taiwanese-language market by adding Traditional Chinese to its impressive portfolio.

Personal experience as key

Born in 1979, Lingvist founder Mait Müntel initial career was in theoretical physics. After obtaining his PhD from the University of Tartu, the Estonian worked for nine years at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where he was part of the team behind the Higgs-Boson discovery.

When it came to language lessons, however, he would experience continual frustration. "I always looked for a reason to skip language class. But the more classes I skipped, the worse I actually did.

Having studied Russian for 12 years, the only thing I could remember was how to say hello,” said Müntel.

Working at CERN also meant that he would be living in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, which only added to his frustration. "It's not fun to live in a French-speaking area and not being able to speak the language,” said Müntel.

As a result, he began his search for a language-learning program that would suit his needs. Regarding live lessons, Müntel says that “most of the language courses were still classroom-based, yet I didn’t have any time to go to class.”

But software, too, had its pitfalls:
“There was a lot of software available, but progress was too slow and I found it a waste of time.”

Backing from Skype’s Jaan Tallinn

In the end, Müntel took matters into his own hands: “I was being taught things that I did not need to know so I decided to solve this problem by myself.”

Müntel began to look at artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning to improve the efficiency of language software. He then tested it out on himself, with the results surpassing his expectations.

"I was quite surprised that I was able to obtain intermediate level proficiency after
spending merely 200 hours in the program. This level is typically achieved after 10 years of study in a French language program.”

It was then that Müntel encountered Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, who encouraged him to further pursue his work. Tallinn himself had previously dabbled into language software, writing a program designed to help him learn Japanese.

As one of the world's top experts in AI, he was immediately attracted to Müntel’s idea of improving current methods through the technology.

After trying Müntel’s software, he promised to help with the Japanese language version and assisted with fundraising.

Using AI to boost efficiency

According to Müntel, using AI can drastically improve efficiency, yet most language software developers seem to be still sleeping on the technology. “The fastest person in the world is only two to three times as fast as a normal person, but when it comes to mental ability, the differences between people can be ten to one hundred times. Surprisingly, none of the current language-learning apps takes this into account,” Müntel says.

Lingvist is using AI to "analyze every click of the mouse and typing speed to determine how
long you are thinking about a word and if you know it or not.

This data is then used to construct a model which is tailored to the individual learner and accounts for differences in cognitive ability.”

Additionally, the program emphasizes words that appear frequently and their associated
grammar. According to Müntel, "high-frequency vocabulary should be learned as soon as
possible.

For example, when comparing “beer” and “garbage dump,” the former is used some 1.79 million more times more than the latter in ever day speech.”

No competition from translation software

Müntel is confident that his AI-enhanced language-learning platform will not be rendered superfluous by the strides Google, Microsoft, and other technology giants are making in
regard to translation software.

"Google may perfect AI in the area of real-time translation, but people still need language to communicate with one each other. This is something that technology simply can’t replace.

Actually AI is leading us into an era of lifelong learning, where language learning in particular will still be both a basic necessity and joy!”