The Story of Yakk

It was July 2013 and it had been about 5 months since my co-founder Shaf and I had decided pull the plug on our social engagement startup, Twocial. It was a great experience and we both learned a lot of hard lessons; some so crazy you’d almost never believe them. If you’re interested, Shaf recently wrote an excellent recount of one of our strangest ones.

I’m the kind of person who always needs to be working on something that matters, so 5 months of no particular focus was hard, but it was also a great opportunity to really think about what mattered to me.

Among my hobbies of building things and generally consuming electricity, I’ve always had a big interest in spoken language. From constructed auxiliary languages like Esperanto (Saluton al ĉiuj Esperantistoj!) to natural languages like German, I just love language. In a sense it’s quite possibly the single most important thing we have created, and continues to be the foundation of everything we do in an increasingly international world.

So I wanted to create something that helped myself and others learn languages (German, for now), but what was the problem? It wasn’t that I was learning no German at all – I was learning lots of words and various phrases. It wasn’t that there was a lack of content – between Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise and others I had lots of content and plenty of ways to acquire new vocabulary.

The problem was worse. When I met a German, I couldn’t hold even the most basic conversation.

Guten Tag. Wie geht es dir?
Blank stare

Duolingo was teaching me how to say Ich habe deine Tochter (I have your daughter). Babbel was making it easy to learn various phrases and vocabulary with real audio pronunciation. Memrise was making flashcards fun and memorable.

But none of them were teaching me how to be conversational. None of them were teaching me how to speak a language.

And I wasn’t alone. A number of my friends had similar experiences of pouring hundreds of hours into language learning but ultimately lacking the confidence to speak with others.

Most people agree that the best way to learn a language is to go to the country where it’s spoken and be immersed. The reason this works (in addition to the power of necessity) is that it’s real and constantly contextual. You’re not hearing random words on their own, you’re not hearing random phrases disconnected from wider parts of conversation. Suddenly things have relationships – certain words are used in certain situations, certain phrases are said following others and the effects of politeness and formality become more obvious.

And so with this conversation-first approach in mind, Yakk was born.

Yakk is an approach to language learning that focuses on learning through conversation.

Yakk isn’t going to start by teaching you the numbers 1 to 10. It isn’t going to start by telling you how to say the days of the week, or how to say brother, mother etc. Instead, Yakk uses the notion of a conversation with another person as the medium for learning. Essentially you’re learning how to hold a conversation from the start (albeit a very basic one to begin with).

As you progress through the conversation, there are opportunities to stop and learn about how or why the next part of the conversation is structured the way it is. In other words, relevant grammar and vocabulary are introduced just-in-time, as and when you need them in order to keep the conversation going.

Since you’re progressing through a conversation, everything you learn has context. You’re not just learning a random word and left wondering how to use it in a sentence. You’re not learning a random phrase without knowing how it fits into a conversation. Instead you’re experiencing the natural flow of a language, where phrases are intimately connected and words have context.
The focus for the next few months will be on making this conversation-first learning approach as refined and enjoyable as possible. There’s also the very big challenge of producing great content that’s cleverly structured to expose you to the right things in the right order.

If you’re interested in how Yakk is progressing, I’m going to start creating progress updates every 2 or 3 weeks, so keep your eye on the blog for those.

It’s an exciting time for a very young startup and I can’t wait to be able to share more.