Speaking the Langauge of Success: Babbel Celebrates Fifth Birthday

By David Knight |

Learning a new language from scratch is never easy – as this writer can testify. In recent years, however, a host of new tools to make the process easier have come onto the market, and one of the most successful is Babbel, which is celebrating its fifth birthday today (Tuesday).

The Berlin-based startup’s online language courses have notched up 10 million users with 500,000 new registrations a month. And although the world is becoming ever more unilingual – you don’t really need to speak German to work in the Berlin startup scene, for example – and translation tools become smarter and more accurate, the team behind Babbel is still confident of its future.

The idea behind Babbel came, according to co-founder Markus Witte, from a conversation held in a small Kreuzberg apartment. “Our motivation was, and is, to provide a user-friendly, powerful solution that would allow learners to learn a foreign-language in a fun but target way – regardless of time or place,” he said.

Parent company Lesson Nine GmbH was founded in 2007 by Lorenz Heine, Markus Witte, Toine Diepstraten and Thomas Holl. Babbel itself came online on January 15, 2008. The company, which has received funding from Kizoo AG and VC-Fonds Berlin, now boasts 120 full-time and freelance employees.

Babbel now offers vocabulary trainers in 11 languages with around 6,300 hours of material in all. Content manager Miriam Plieninger said that traditional study options for adults learning new languages are unrealistic or too regimented: “We wanted to show that communicative language learning was also possible online,” she said. “Our idea was to join up classic vocabulary and grammar training with authentic, everyday dialogues, so that what the user learned could then be quickly applied out side of Babbel.”

Following December’s launch of the service on the iPad, plans for the coming year include the introduction of Norwegian and Danish in February and the opening of a new Kreuzberg office a month later.

The example test for German is an easy-to-use tool, and would certainly be a good way to improve your skills if you find the right degree of difficulty. But there appears to be a problem with the registration system – the first attempt failed to produce a confirmation email for (at time of publishing*) four hours plus, and a second more recent attempt has also not yet been successful.

Yet as an easy, no-effort way to get into or improve a language, whether at your desktop or on the go, it has proved popular over the last five years. It may never replace a human teacher, of course, but you can’t rely on the likes of SayHi forever…

* Update: It took a few more hours but eventually the email came through. The service offers a few basic exercises for free before you have to pay for access – for English speakers learning Germany, for example, it costs €9.95 for a month of unlimited access or €19.95 for three months and €33.30 for half a year. It would be interesting to see at which point – i.e. how good you became at a language – Babbel becomes less effective.