Review of language learning website: learnl (early MVP)

By | November 2, 2021

I was recently contacted by Jojo Masala, the creator of a new website for language learning, called “learnl”. He asked me if I was interested in trying it out, though he cautioned that, “It’s in it’s early days and kind of just an MVP now.” (Note: for those of you not too familiar with software development, here MVP means “minimum viable product” and alludes to the idea of getting a minimum set of functionalities in order to test the feasibility of some idea, which would eventually be built out more fully if things go well.)

Having created my own website a while back that was similar to what Learnl seems to aim for, I thought it would be fun to check out his site and give some feedback. Before writing this I did confirm that he was OK with a public article, including potentially both positive and negative points.

Anyway, before we get started with the site itself I wanted to talk about the title, “learnl”. I hesitate to start on the wrong foot with this review, but frankly I think the name should be reconsidered. Typographically, the last “l” seems like it could be a “1”, and my first impression at seeing this name is just “I will learn something”, without necessarily knowing it is about languages. While I am on this topic, there doesn’t seem to be any logo yet associated with this site, which is an important part of the site’s identity though (though to be fair, I need to modify Self Taught Japanese to show its logo). The first page does have the subtitle, “Discover your learning community,” but again it is overly general instead of being about language learning. 

When creating a service like this, it’s extremely important to try and decide on exactly what  your demographic and main use case(s) are going to be, and then cater to those as much as possible instead of trying to solve all possible problems. While in theory creating a site that will help anyone learn anything sounds nice, the act of learning is so diverse that it would be very difficult to create in practice. 

Creating an account was easy as putting in a few fields, and didn’t require email verification (as a site creator I think this should be added for the long term, but as a user it’s convenient to just get right in immediately).

After creating an account, I was greeted with a pretty simple screen with only a handful of elements. Besides the title there was some text, “Welcome to Learnl. Come here to check in with your language learning community, (I do appreciate the mention of language learning here), and a little profile-like icon on the top right. The majority of the page was taken up by a decidedly Twitter-like feed of messages, where each had the ability to be commented on or liked.

Unfortunately, when I first logged in one of the topmost messages showed an image with someone wearing suggestive clothes in a suggestive pose, definitely not something for kids. I am doing this review under the pretense of it being an early version, but showing inappropriate content to those underaged or those not interested in seeing this should be avoided at any stage of the project where the public is involved. Twitter is one site that has good controls for this type of content. It wasn’t extreme enough to be considered pornographic, however it did leave a bad taste in my mouth nonetheless, and I didn’t watch the linked content so I cannot say how “adult” it truly was. I will say that even if that specific post is deleted, with an open system (with apparently no admin approval system set up yet) there is always the possibility of someone else posting spam or other inappropriate content. (Update: Jojo told me that while the thumbnail in question is suggestive, the actual video it links is not adult content at all.)

Making a post was easy enough, though there were two mysterious icons (a timer and a calendar) whose purpose was unclear. Though I can experiment and try to guess, I think it’s important that their use is clarified to users right away.

When I initially tried to post, the site complained I should have a tag for my content, and by adding “#japanese” I was able to submit it.There was a few-second delay to post my comment, but given inexpensive servers for MVP this is reasonable. The post did work fine, and I was able to comment easily on it.

I played around in the profile section, but there was little more than the ability to change name and bio, and add a picture. I did some more experimentation and found out that clicking on a user showed their bio and recent posts, and also was able to follow a user. However, since I was already seeing posts for people I hadn’t followed, it wasn’t clear to me what the purpose of the “follow” functionality was.

That’s about it for the site’s features at this point, at least as far as I could tell. 

Now if I were to look at this site with a very critical eye, I could say that it is basically a crippled version of Twitter. To be sure, Twitter allows doing similar functionality, except with many more features. I guess one of the only differences is the mysterious icons I talked about earlier, one of which appears to be designed to show how long you performed a certain action.

From Jojo’s emails it is clear he is very passionate about language learning and is trying to fill a niche he has discovered, and I applaud his efforts so far. But I think he really needs to focus more on the language learning use case, and add more functionality to distinguish learnl from Twitter and other existing social apps and platforms. The fact that learnl shares some design characteristics with Twitter (for example the “follow” button looks like a similar color) makes it even easier to compare these sites.

Finally, while I had created a somewhat extensive website with a similar goal (“Language On Track”), to make a long story short I had taken it down a few months ago due to a handful of reasons. My site too was only at a beta stage and needed a lot of work, not to mention all the time required to maintain and promote the site. Without a doubt it’s a huge time investment to work on a site like this. 

To make a site like this really grow, I think it will take a lot of creativity in terms of how to keep users engaged, plus a well-designed visual experience. Since Jojo already has a working prototype, I would suggest quickly iterating against a bunch of ideas, and try to get more people like me who are really interested in language learning to go test them out. Most importantly, I think (ironically) the time spent on sites like this should be minimized, since every minute spent tracking language learning tasks is a minute that could have been spent on actually studying (this doesn’t mean these tools don’t have value, however). 

One idea would be to allow users to record a language learning activity in detail with a few clicks, and no typing. Being able to find a language learning activity from another person and then say, “I did this myself for X” is one more idea. Another thing I regret not doing on Language On Track was a simple tutorial that walks the user through the basic functionality, along with explanatory text about the purpose and usage of the site. One site that is in a slightly different, but related area is Kanshudo, which I consider to have succeeded fairly well in what it tries to achieve.

Jojo told me he plans to update things frequently so I expect there will be big changes in the next few weeks, and maybe I’ll even do a follow-up review if things improve dramatically for learnl. For reference, my comment in this article are when I used the site on November 1, 2021.

(Note: in one of my latest books I have a discussion about the pros and cons of sites targeted to help with language learning.)

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