If you want to learn a new language, Facebook might not be the obvious place to look. But the technology giant is looking to light a spark in the business of English instruction through its latest endorsement.
Facebook on Tuesday named Taiwan-based VoiceTube — a mobile app that features over 30,000 videos for learning to speak and listen to English — its App of the Year for 2016. The accolade highlights the third annual competition for Facebook’s FbStart” program. Along with the public endorsement from one of tech’s biggest companies, VoiceTube will receive $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in Facebook Ad Credits as well as continued mentorship.
VoiceTube cofounder and CEO Richard Zenn said he initially thought the award was a “scam,” in an exclusive interview with International Business Times prior to the announcement. “I thought it was a scam at first because, as with everyone else these days, I receive so many emails that say, ‘Richard, you won XXXXX prize.’ After I did some research and realized this was in fact very real, I was quite blown away,” he wrote in an email.
App of the Year competitions are commonplace among tech companies. Last year, Apple crowned Twitter's live video app Periscope as the best app of 2015. And Google named Flipagram, an app for creating mini music videos, to the No. 1 spot on its list.
The startup’s educational and video component excited Facebook. “I spend a lot of time talking about internet.org. You can’t talk about the value of connecting and the internet without the way that they impact [education],” said Ime Archibong, director of strategic partnerships at Facebook. "When you look at an app like VoiceTube, they are leveraging technology, videos in an innovative way to help people learn."
Since launching in 2012, VoiceTube has connected more than 1,500,000 Taiwanese internet users to tools for learning English. Registered users have access to 30,000 videos that have bilingual substitutes and can also use a dictionary that can be accessible offline. The app is free to download and is funded through ads displayed within the app.
Zenn, who previously worked as a software engineer at GroupOn Taiwan, said he was inspired to create VoiceTube by his own experiences learning English. Every day after work, he practiced the language not by attending classes but by watching TV programs on the Discovery Channel.
“My big takeaway from all this was, watching videos you’re actually interested in can be immensely beneficial to learning languages. Then, I thought, ‘Well, I do spend a lot of time every day watching YouTube videos. Why not use YouTube videos as language-learning materials?’” Zenn wrote.
VoiceTube has over 30,000 videos, including TED Talks, CNN News, music videos, movie clips, gaming videos and other topics, for which the company has secured the rights to the content.
Up next for VoiceTube, Zenn said, is an expansion of the business internationally. The team recently released a Japanese version and is looking to localize the app and start marketing it in Japan. “It is our sincere wish to take this extremely useful method for learning English and share it to the rest of the world,” Zenn wrote.
For emerging international developers, the potential for resources and mentorship from a company as big as Facebook is obviously a major selling point of the FbStart program. “Facebook was a startup 12 years ago; we have a lot of lessons that we can share about building an app and a business generally, everything about how to fund-raise and these technical and business challenges,” said Michael Huang, strategic partner manager at Facebook, who co-leads FbStart.
But it’s also a learning experience for Facebook itself. Last year’s winner, MomentCam, is based in China, where Facebook’s site and apps are blocked. FbStart has over 9,000 members from 137 countries. About one-third of the startups are based in the Asia-Pacific region, with India as the biggest market of FbStart members and the No. 2 for Facebook globally.
Facebook works with the developers and companies overseas to test new products for its own apps and services. For instance, the new Account Kit tool launched at this year's F8 conference was tested with FbStart member Saavn.
Recently, Facebook has been looking more to Asia-Pacific, which is its fastest-growing region for the number of mobile apps using Facebook’s tools, such as the log-in button. Over 80 percent of the top 100 highest-grossing iOS and top 100 Android apps in India, Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia have integrated with Facebook.
The FbStart team, including Archibong and Huang, will start a global tour of developer communities next month and start in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong and Jakarta. "We’re trying to figure out how to approach these markets differently," Huang said.