On June 6, Mango Languages reinvented itself by launching a new brand identity and releasing “major advancements to its platform,” including “new personalized, adaptive, conversation-based lessons in over 70 languages for web, iOS, and Android,” all with an eye toward an attitude of “resfeber” (Swedish for “the restless race of the traveler’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; a travel fever that can manifest as an illness,” according to HelloGiggles. Mango would probably rather have us skip the “illness” part).
In the world of language learning, Mango is in the company of a new batch of innovators. The days of Pimsleur’s repetition via audiocassettes or CDs are fading, now, and even the sit-down-before-a-desktop style of Rosetta Stone’s adaptive software seems to be giving way to something new. The current crop of language-learning companies has put an emphasis on mobility—learning on-the-go—in a way that earlier generations were not able to due to technological restrictions.
What Sets Mango Apart
But back before the singularity of June 2007 (the release of the iPhone), there were deeper, structural problems. Of this earlier generation of language-learning systems, Mango tells me that they were too often culturally ham-fisted: “Older language learning programs tend to paint all languages with the same brush, meaning course images and other culturally meaningful components are the same for all the languages, and content is just a translation of the same selection of words and phrases for all languages. This approach does not teach the individualized differences between languages.” Most cultures might showcase a bowl as an important object, but not all might emphasize the importance of a head scarf, for example.
By incorporating groups of native speakers to develop the phrases taught “as well as highlight the culture elements of each language,” Mango seems to be using legitimate cultural and linguistic subtlety to secure street cred for its product.
The services from companies such as Lingvist, Drops, Duolingo, Babbel, and Mango are app-first tools, always in your pocket and on your smartphone, and are a ready addition to the travel kit for itchy-footed Millennials (and Millennials at heart). This creates opportunities and new areas for competition. Mango claims to be different from competitors such as Babbel “because no other resource combines quality content created by expert linguists and native language teachers with intelligent, adaptive technology, to deliver practical phrases from real situations that allow learners to start conversations with confidence.” Mango’s linguistic team cites its proprietary methodology (called Intuitive Language Construction) as it builds “foundational elements necessary to effectively communicate in another language: vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and culture, applying those elements through listening and reading activities.”
Mango’s strategy for standing out in the field is to lean on this Intuitive Language Construction and its techniques. It’s betting on the quality of its andragogy and couching it all in a new look, which emphasizes our global interconnectedness. The specific approaches include teaching “actual words and phrases as opposed to matching words to pictures—which can be confusing as pictures can often have multiple meanings,” the company notes. It also varies recording speeds of native speakers so that users can practice pronunciation as it might arise in various real-life situations.
The Mango Review System is meant to adapt “to the learners’ pace and adjusts to how often they learn, which motivates beginners as well as continuously encourages long-term learners to increase their conversational abilities.” Dopamine hits through gamifying reward systems all to increase your language skills? You also see it in other services, such as Duolingo and Drops.
Time will tell how these innovations stand up against Mango’s competitors in a quickly evolving market.
Learning Languages While Traveling
But what of the state of language learning generally? Mango and related tools are meant for a global market in the Zygmunt Bauman sense: Globals are those people who can go anywhere in space, but have no time. As on-the-go translation software and apps get better, there might be some disincentive for us to really spend the time to learn a new language rather than wandering around in foreign cities with auto-translating Google Assistants’ AIs doing the hard work for us.
Mango, however, says no to this view of artificially enhanced convenience, insisting that there will always be too much of the human—and language/culture is human—to allow for complete automation of translation and language learning:
Language is a multidimensional vehicle, and while new digital translation apps add another dimension to the vehicle of language, they still can’t supplant language or the agency we bring to the communicative experience. How and where we choose to use digital assistants as a tool is key. For instance, using a digital device for a quick translation to get directions while traveling can be helpful. Yet it’s not a very good way to have a conversation with someone in another language. Learning how to speak another language infinitely increases our ability to make human connections in a way that a digital device likely never will.
Mango’s press release states the following:
Technology has made travel infinitely easier, but even the best translation apps can’t replicate the conversational nuances that build real understanding and genuine connections. Making a significant connection with another person through direct communication and conversation is essential to who we are as humans. In fact, that’s the touch stone for the underlying ethos of Mango Languages, the belief that technology shouldn’t replace the connection you make with others, it should enhance it.
That belief in connection to other humans as a driver for participation in language learning seems to be a central tenet in Mango’s rebranding—and of the values for language-learning software generally. As the company points out, travel is growing fast, with more than 1.25 billion international arrivals in 2018. The assumption that interest in language learning immediately follows the increase in travel culture—particularly for Millennials and Gen Xers, the press release notes—is central to Mango’s decision to create a new brand identity.
The world, however, is speeding up, and it is increasingly run by algorithms. Whether app-first language-learning software really does help facilitate multidimensional connections to other people, or whether our words will be autocompleted in augmented reality, remains to be seen. Mango seems to be betting on the humans.