Wired for Language Learning
Embedding diversity into the design of a web app makes language learning easy and lowers barriers for human connection by putting a premium on conversational exchange
Language learning online or via an app is a fairly new industry. With few role models ahead of them, the Berlin-based Babbel is defining the space as they go. Their approach is also redefining their company, through a commitment to diversity.
Christian Hillemeyer, Babbel’s Director PR & Internal Communications, credits a multilingual corporate culture that embraces the diversity of its workforce with their success. Studies show that becoming multilingual has an impact on our personalities and increased acceptance of others. Babbel’s 400 employees in two countries (Germany and the U.S.) speak more than 30 languages. They are passionate about diversity.
Babbel’s unique approach to language is to get people to talk to each other as quickly as possible, through conversational learning. In a recent Babbel user survey, 73 % of respondents said they were confident holding a conversation in a new language within five hours of language learning using Babbel. Making the effort to understand each other has also had a huge impact on the company’s productivity, workforce morale and community engagement.
Building diversity into the learning curve
Creating an inclusive corporate culture is not easy. Babbel is a living experiment in making it work.
Babbel is a successful company because they’re still learning. After eight years, Hillemeyer says they’re successful “only because we went through many different changes, tried many things. We failed, and moved on. We need people to be different, and to try things and do things their way because we don’t know what will work.”
Valuing their diverse human capital is essential. Hellemeyer says that Babbel looks for interesting people, who are open, not too biased and interested in taking on projects in their own way. “Diversity means multidimensional collaboration. Different opinions brought together create a bigger dimension.” Babbel gives their teams room to explore, rather than dictating how they need to do their work. “We want them to think out of the box. If it goes wrong, then we make it different the next time.”
Clearly, it’s working. Babbel just surpassed one million paid subscribers and was recently named one of the world’s most innovative companies in 2016, by Fast Company.
A different kind of social responsibility
“The more languages you know, the more you are human.” Hellemeyer takes this quotation from Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk to heart. Making language learning easy and putting a premium on conversational exchange lowers barriers for human connection can bring people together in a shared humanity. With this perspective, it was easy for the company to play a role in something as seemingly disconnected as refugee resettlement.
Germany has welcomed 1 million refugees in the current mass migration into Europe. Opening the country’s borders has not been without resistance, fear and trepidation. Babbel has looked at the situation with the lens, how can we help?
In early 2015, before larger refugee numbers started arriving, Berlin-based refugee support organizations contacted Babbel for free access to their language courses. It was easy to say yes, but Babbel wanted to do more. Being helpful meant taking the time to ensure that their approach was thoughtful and could have a large and sustainable impact. As a result, Babbel is providing German refugee projects with €1 million worth of language courses.
Working collaboratively with refugee centres made sense, to ensure Babbel can have the lasting impact they seek. As Babbel Founder and CEO Markus Witte said, “in providing help to refugees, we find ourselves in completely new territory. That’s why it was important for us to partner with organizations that possess a wealth of relevant experience and expertise. Offering free online courses is all well and good, but you also need to get the courses into the hands of the people that need them.”
Babbel employees are also actively helping. Dozens of Babbel staff have volunteered in refugee centres to help distribute courses, and to help refugees learn German. Babbel linguists, professional language teachers, translators and education specialists train volunteer teachers who deliver face-to-face lessons in the centres. Moving forward, Babbel may share their workshops online, for volunteer teachers globally.
Being helpful in community externally has paid off internally for Babbel. Hellemeyer says an unexpected result of their refugee initiatives has been a huge increase in employee pride in the company. It’s the kind of employee morale boost that employers dream of. For Babbel’s workers, supporting local refugee initiatives gives them the feeling that they and the company they work for are doing something meaningful.
Babbel’s approach to diversity, valuing their employees and being helpful has put them on the path to even greater success. Says Hellemeyer, “Really helping people has put us at a different level. I feel pride and happiness that we kicked this off.”
Making it Work for You:
- In a high paced technology and innovation setting, valuing diverse human capital is a strategic advantage. Treat your people as interested investors in your success, it's theirs too.
- Harness the energy of your employees to do good. If people feel like they're working for a company that shares their values, morale only goes up.
- Building a learning company means committing to experiments, exploration, and learning from it.
- Be helpful. Approach the potential of what your organization can do in your community with the simple question, "how can we help?"