The start-up Speakshake has created a communication platform for improving your foreign language speaking skills. As well as communication, it offers users a variety of learning tools to accompany their discussions. The platform has been recognized by the French Administration as a vehicle for integration of both French nationals abroad and foreigners in France.
Venezuela, Brazil, China, Chili… Fanny Vallantin spent several years working as an engineer in different countries, discovering new cultures and languages wherever she went. In order to maintain her skills and keep practicing all these languages, she created a program enabling her to communicate with her colleagues in different countries. From what began as a personal tool, she created a platform her friends could also use, and then a start-up. The result was the company Speakshake, incubated at ParisTech Entrepreneurs since April 2017.
The start-up offers a way of connecting two users who each want to mutually improve their skills in the other’s native language, via a web service. The two participants begin a 30-minute video discussion, split into two 15-minute halves, each carried out in one of the two languages. Because of the length of the conversation, access to the service requires users to have a basic level of practical skills. “You need to have the level of a tourist who can get by abroad, who can order a coffee in a bar, in the language you want to work on” explains Fanny Vallantin.
The service aims to give its users the tools to integrate themselves in a country, and so the conversations are directed towards cultural subjects. During the discussion, Shakespeak offers various documents on the country’s traditions, history or current events. The resources are prepared in collaboration with students at the Sorbonne Nouvelle university, the official partner institution of the platform. The subjects spark discussion, but are not imposed on the participants, who remain free to speak about whatever they want, and may browse through the resources available as they please.
The 15-minute conversation in the user’s language is based on their partner’s culture. A French person speaking with a German person will speak in French about German culture, and in German about their own culture. This structure means that users are continually learning about the foreign country, even when speaking their own language. The start-up currently has seven languages on offer: French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and Italian. The list is set to grow next September, to include Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and Korean, with support from Ile-de-France tourism funds.
In addition to cultural resources, the start-up’s platform offers a host of digital tools for learning. For instance, the conversation interface includes an online chat feature for spelling out words. It also includes an online dictionary and translator. All words written in these interfaces can be added to the dashboard, which the user may look at once the conversation has finished. An oral and written report system allows users to give advice to their conversation partners, and to receive tips for their own improvement.
By focusing on oral learning through conversation, Speakshake takes a new approach in the language education sector, which is often centered around writing. And by providing educational tools, it offers an enriched communication service. This point of difference is what helped the start-up win the Quai d’Orsay hackathon in January, as a service helping young foreigners to be better integrated in France, and French expats to become integrated in their host country. The young company has also been recognized by L’Institut Français and the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs as the perfect tool for improving speaking skills in a foreign language.