Foxy Voxy: #mlearning meets motivation in language teaching

In a rant, several weeks back I emphasized my thoughts on how I really, simply, can't see how mobile phones and language learning/teaching are ever going to lie in a bed together...  partly because of the size of the tool itself, issues related to internet access on the go, but also, most importantly to be quite frank, my main suspicion is that, like Thornbury's suspicion of products developed for IWBs, is all we're gonna wind up with is a rehash of tired and out-dated methodologies spiced up for diamond-sharp-screen-technologies (gap-fill, random-name-that-photo anyone?) but these materials won't be personalized nor learner-centered, and undoubtedly won't be an interactive learning tool and sure as heck, won't be motivational.

I sure do love being proved wrong.

Folks, it looks like a fox has slipped into the henhouse with something really rather innovative.


At first contact, when they emailed, I scoffed and almost reached for the mark-as-spam button.

Oh, here we go, I thought,  I mean just how many emails do I really have to receive each week with someone wanting to be promoted on my blog?  But this email was very different.   It didn't congratulate me  and tell me how much they just love my blog but instead I got a long, professionallly laid out  list of solid reasons why their product was worth taking a look at.  

I clicked through.

I emailed back.

We Skyped.

I put it to the student-test.

Unanamious votes all round:  they said "cool" "guile" "very cool".    They asked "can we download it in German?"  I told them not yet.  But I hope soon.

The company who've created this incredibly simple concept of sending out a 3 minute SMS/email/app with a lead in in the students' own L1 is called Voxy, headed up by Paul Gollash (who lists in his claim to fame, working within Richard Branson's venture capital wing). 

His killer team includes Manuel Morales - in charge of community outreach; Gregg Carey (co-founder) and Ed Menendez who are developing the product; Laura Martinez (journalist and blogger) their Editorial Director - she currenlty creates the daily streaks.  

Linguist Jane Sedlar and language coordinator Sandra Rubio keep them on andragogical track... and their secret weapon?

Rudy Menendez who comes in with a background in creating addictive games.


The language learning tool came out of a simple wish to make language learning more interesting, they ask:

Why is language learning so un-interesting? Languages are, after all, empirically exciting, useful, and empowering to all of us. Does studying it have to suck? We don't think so.

Voxy was first conceived over cold beers at a Yakatori bar in the East Village of New York and the business plan was written shortly afterwards while in San Sebastian, on the northern coast of Spain. It grew out of a fascination for evolving media (including magazines, newspapers, digital and social), and a passion for language learning in an increasingly global community. At Voxy's core is a fervent belief that there is better way to learn a new language.

Voxy raised a seed round of capital from a group of angel investors with experience building successful businesses in the for-profit education space, and a history of creating powerful consumer brands.

Software in the back records what the students are interested in, what stories they tend to click on and flashcard games based on the lexis that the students have chosen themselves goes into a personalized bank.

Voxy is a young company, founded in Feb 2010 but has already been written up in the New York TimesCNN money and TechCrunch. In the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield (video), Gollash quotes Chomsky saying that 98% of language teaching is just about keeping the students interested and they've met that challenge head on by creating an application which adapts seamlessly into adult life, converting relevant, topical content and turned this into a game.

Voxy uses an incremental approach, important in minimizing cognitive load.  Language is also offered in chunks - no grammar-based curriculum here although there is grammar: highlighted in context. (Hear my gasp!)

New material is presented at a level of difficulty  just beyond the students' current ability.

Students receive points based on how often they log in and play these streaks, the words they accumulate and the games they play.

Want to get involved?
As I mentioned earlier, Voxy is a young company and very eager to get real feedback from teachers and students.  The website is completely free (the i-phone app will cost a dollar) so if you happen to be a teacher reading my blog, based in the US or in Central or South America or Spain - basically anywhere where you have Spanish speaking students learning English then why not head on over to the Voxy website, mess around a bit  and then if you like, show it to your students.

If you'd like to ask questions or send in your thoughts, contact the very friendly Manuel Morales: manuel (at) voxy (dot) com.

Useful resources: 

and if you thought I was kidding when I said I am mostly suspicious of mobile technologies... do please have a thorough look at David Reed's blog on mobile ESL, he reviews products there and talks about the use of the phone in the classroom.  Well-written posts but as far as I can tell, personally, really can't figure how these apps he reviews are supposedly thinking outside the cage...   watch out ELT.


4 Responses to “Foxy Voxy: #mlearning meets motivation in language teaching”

  • Eric says:
    November 01, 2010

    Consider me curious, and based on your description and analysis, even hopeful.

    Thanks for the lead.

    PS. I love that Chomsky line too!

  • Anne says:
    November 02, 2010

    Very nice approach, poss. first killer app. Vocab/ phrase collection is clearly the right way to go. Pity it has to be translation-based.

    November 02, 2010

    Hey Eric, yup! That's a fave chomskian for me too :-)

    Hi Anne, funnily enough that was one of things I liked about it, the L1 lead-in... the out-of-the-box approach, so messages coming in, check the SMS quickly and ask yourself "is this a story I want to read?" then get to the story, choose the words, see how they translate - dunno, personally for me in terms of supplementary materials it's a good idea I reckon...

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    November 18, 2010

    The translation approach is what we use at Spotlight, and it works in that market. Guess it just means there's have to be a Voxy for China :-)


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