Start-up of the week

Israeli start-up presents an online ulpan

Web-surf your way to mastery of a new language, urge the makers of in action (photo credit: Courtesy) in action (photo credit: Courtesy)

For adults, learning a new language is a tough challenge — especially when it comes to learning a language with non-Roman characters, such as Hebrew, Chinese, or Russian.

One method of learning Hebrew that has had some limited success has been the ulpan, the total immersion language-learning system popular in Israel. But the technique is far from ideal; a recent government study showed that as many as 60 percent of immigrants who go through the system can’t read, write, or speak Hebrew very well when they finish.

Perhaps what’s needed is something even more engrossing — like the online immersion users of get when they surf the web. Using quizzes, voice-overs, practice exercises, games, and constant reinforcement, — according to its developers — is a better and more effective way to learn languages.

“ is a personal assistant that learns you, while you learn a language,” says CEO Dr. Jan Ihmels. “It seamlessly integrates learning with your daily browsing behavior, so you can improve your language skills while you enjoy the freedom and diversity the web has to offer.”

Dr. Jan Ihmels (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Jan Ihmels (photo credit: Courtesy)

It took Ihmels, of the Weizmann Institute, along with cofounder Dr. Orly Fuhrman of Stanford, two years to come up with, which just raised its first $400,000 in funding. Ihmels has a background in computational biology, physics and computer science, while Fuhrman’s specialty is cognitive science and language learning. Applying the principles of those disciplines to the problem of adult language learning, the two came up with

“We have integrated various patent-pending algorithms based on NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) academic research to reach the point where we are. This was a huge task and we are very proud of the result. We believe that we bring a new hope for foreign-language learners,” said Fuhrman.

Although provides its lessons online, it’s almost as immersing as an ulpan, said Ihmels. “Traveling to a foreign country may be the best way to fully immerse yourself in a language and master it, but few of us have the time or money to do so.”

Users download as a browser extension (currently available only for Google Chrome; a Firefox version will be ready in the next month or so).

Once installed, users can check out a site in one of the languages the system supports (currently English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, with dozens more in the works), highlight a word, and add it to their list. The list will automatically include resources drawn from the web to encourage learning it. Users can then practice their new words with automatically generated flashcards and smart quizzes.

Dr. Orly Fuhrman (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Orly Fuhrman (photo credit: Courtesy)

When those are completed successfully, searches out sites that contain content that includes the word. Of course, you’ll have multiple words on your list, so the content can include multiple words, so you can see how they are used in context. “Basically, we integrate the learning process with a user’s daily online activity — email, Facebook, favorite news, economics, sport or any other website visited, turning it into a language lesson, thus increasing the effectiveness of the learning process,” said Ihmels.

Although it can be used on its own, is a great way to reinforce lessons learned in a language school like Berlitz, he said, adding that it can fit right in with lesson plans for teachers in such schools as well.

With so much of life lived online, makes sense for anyone who wants to learn a new language, Ihmels added.

“Studies have shown that repeated exposure to new words in different contexts boosts learning. constantly updates your vocabulary, so you can ‘follow’ the words you learned and review them in real articles that are comfortable enough to read and also promote your learning,” he said. “We spend most of our time online anyway. The web can provide the ideal full immersion experience for any language learner. It offers content in every language, at any level, and about any topic you can dream of.”

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