John Duquette, CEO of Yabla
Mark Knowles: John Duquette, do you mind introducing yourself briefly? Where did you study, what’s your connection to the Foreign Language Learning community?
John Duquette: I am from East Hartford, Connecticut and I graduated from the public high school. I was thrown out of the Catholic high school, but that’s another story 😉 I have an undergraduate degree from Brown University, where I double majored in Engineering (Materials Science) and American Civilization (which is also called “American Studies” in some places). I studied French in high school and took some courses in college. I always passed, but I never became someone who could really speak or understand French. My parents both could speak French, as French language was carried on in New England among enclaves of French Canadians (even when families were on the 3rd+ generation in the USA, as the case with both my parents). After WWII these French neighborhoods and enclaves that maintained the language ceased to continue that tradition. Both of my parents went to Catholic grammar schools where half the day was taught in French. However, I didn’t learn French at home, and my parents didn’t speak to us in French, and only to each other in French occasionally (such as when they didn’t want us to understand).
Mark Knowles: When did Yabla get off the ground, and what was the genesis for it?
John Duquette: In the 1990s, I had been traveling relatively frequently to Venezuela, to a little town I sort of “adopted” because I like to windsurf, and it had lots of wind. Sometimes people call Yabla and say “How many hours every day should I spend with Yabla if I want to learn the language as fast as possible? and I always tell them, “If you need to learn the language as fast as possible, go to a small town, alone, where no one speaks English, and spend at least a month — interacting with the locals as much as possible. Yabla will help you get ready before you go, and help you maintain and improve when you get back (and was cheap). I also liked meeting new people and learning about the culture. From the start I tried to learn Spanish as well. I brought some self-study books and a dictionary. I spent a lot of time hanging around with Venezuelans, and struggled to learn and pick up the language. I met a young lady on a local flight and she played some pop songs for me, and I took one that I liked and had her help me transcribe it, and then I looked up all the words. (It was this one, which is actually a Spanish version of an Italian hit). By the way, you can see videos from this town and its region in Spanish Yabla (you can search on Adícora, the name of the town, and Coro, the nearby colonial city). I also took airline magazines, which are bilingual, and read both the Spanish and English versions. I would buy local Venezuelan magazines and newspapers, and set out to read the articles. I would hire local teenagers to sit down with me and help me read these articles as well, both in terms of meaning as well as pronunciation. I would say those were the origins of my using popular “authentic” content to immerse myself into a second language. In addition, I spent plenty of time interacting with locals, playing dominos, having a beer, ordering at restaurants, requesting items at markets, talking about windsurfing, whatever — all of this is invaluable of course. (As an aside, sometimes people call Yabla and say “How many hours every day should I spend with Yabla if I want to learn the language as fast as possible? and I always tell them, “if you need to learn the language as fast as possible, go to small town, alone, where no one speaks English, and spend at least a month — interacting with the locals as much as possible. Yabla will help you get ready before you go, and help you maintain and improve when you get back.”)
After my first month in Venezuela, my landlady, who spoke no English, told me “When you arrived, you couldn’t say anything, but now you speak Spanish perfectly!” Well, “perfectly” was far from the truth (it still is!) but she had a point. I couldn’t help but think that I had “studied” French in school for years, always passing with decent grades, but in reality I never could speak French, and now I could get information across in Spanish, after a month, far better than I could ever speak or understand French. In the late 90’s and around the turn of current century, I decided that I wanted to keep improving my Spanish even when I wasn’t visiting Venezuela, and the idea occurred to me that I wanted to watch Spanish language television. But still, it was too hard for me in its unfettered state. I wanted to turn on the “closed captions” — I knew that very often I “knew” the words, but I just couldn’t ‘hear’ them (make them out, pick them out of the blur of noise). I had a strong feeling that if I could read the words while listening to them, it would build my ability to “hear” authentic Spanish at full speed — that it would enhance my ability to distinguish words spoken naturally at full speed. However, at the time, there were few to no closed captions present on Spanish language television in the USA (that has changed), so I started investigating how I might create a system to watch Spanish videos on a computer, with Spanish captions added. I thought it would be easy for me to figure out how to do this. Why I thought it would be easy, I have no idea — it wasn’t really easy! (I wasn’t even a programmer.) Since I was moving to a new platform from scratch, it occurred to me that it would be natural and easy to add additional features that occurred to me, which are the ones you see now on the Yabla Player (such as Slow playback, the addition of a translation captions, integrated one-click dictionary, navigation based on caption timing, the fill in the blank game, etc.). Pretty much all the features you see now were on our earliest prototypes. In 2001 Yabla was incorporated as a corporation in the state of New York. A few friends bought some shares and volunteered to help devise a business plan (which they really didn’t do!). The money was significant at the time, but really it was just a few thousand dollars. There was never any big money funding, the kind you hear about in typical internet stories, though (much) later there were some bigger investments in the 5’s and 10’s of thousands of dollars, which were a huge help at the time. At some point early on in the 2000’s I met a guy named Derek Bronston, who is a great jazz and rock musician who taught himself html and programming to take advantage of the internet boom that had been going on. He joined me and we spent countless hours developing Yabla. I had taught myself to program by then but Derek was far better than me, and I learned from him. Derek now owns a chunk of the company based on that effort. In mid 2005 we finally made Yabla “live” and started taking customers, both for Spanish and French.
Mark Knowles: What were the main challenges that you encountered as an entrepreneur in the world of computer-based language learning and how did you tackle those challenges?
John Duquette: Perhaps the biggest challenge was simply being relatively poor and in debt for many years. I had some other businesses, but I was always just getting by or sliding backwards a bit. We tried a bit to “raise money” in the way you hear about (angel investors, venture capital, etc.), but perhaps I just wasn’t particularly well suited to that type of activity at the time. I don’t really like the word “entrepreneur” and don’t usually call myself that. Maybe if I *was* an entrepreneur it would have been easier! It used to be commonly said that others will offer to buy you out because it’s cheaper to do so than copying you, but I never found that to be true. For example, I reached out to the president of a German company, sometime around 2003 or 2004. They published an old fashioned “audio magazine” for language learners called “Spotlight.” I had not known about audio magazines when I first started Yabla, but once I discovered them I realized that Yabla was a natural extension, you might say modernization, of that technology. This president flew to New York and met with Derek and I in my beat up Chinatown loft. We showed him our prototypes and he liked them very much. My thinking was that he already had the marketing infrastructure and the audience, and capital, and that he could invest and we could work together as partners. He seemed to agree and said he would stay in touch. After he returned to Germany he did not stay in touch, and when I wrote to him he talked about urgent matters keeping him busy and that he would get back to me. He never did. I’m not the type to keep bugging someone so I let it go. Later I noticed subscribers coming to Yabla with “spotlight-verlag” email addresses (his engineers no doubt), and shortly thereafter they launched what was basically a clone of our technology. It even won some awards from the EU for their innovation. There are some more stories like that. It’s a bit disheartening, but I guess all is fair etc…On a more positive note, I also contacted Wes Green who is the founder of Champs-Elysees audio magazines. He stopped by while he was in New York with his daughter for some sort of academic thing for her. Wes gave me great advice, candid advice, about the language learning market and how they were most successful in penetrating it. He also helped me devise pricing and how to think about marketing costs and acquisition costs in a subscription type of pricing model. He didn’t invest, but his advice was very valuable and to this day I’m very thankful to him. Needless to say, he didn’t go home and create his own Yabla clone either.
Mark Knowles: Did you subscribe to any particular learning theory when you first started out with it?
John Duquette: No, I didn’t know anything about learning theory outside of my personal experience that I related before. However, I was starting to devise what I thought of as my own theories. I realized that Yabla was perhaps atypical and I was playing with ideas about it being a “learning” and “learner centered” tool as opposed to a “teaching” tool. I was wondering if that distinction really meant anything or if I was just fooling myself. Later, after I had a working prototype I started reading from the academic side, I found that this “revelation” on my part was in fact something theorists and academics were talking about a lot, basically echoing my thoughts. The internet, if it’s taught me anything, is that it’s hard to have an original thought! When I first set out, and until after I had working prototypes, I didn’t know there was such a thing as C.A.L.L. (computer aided language learning) or even “applied linguistics” for that matter. When I first discovered CALL academic articles and journals, I was really surprised that the technology they were writing about was not particularly advanced, and I realized we were really pushing the envelope at the time. When I did start exploring the literature, I was happy to find articles that studied the basic use of subtitles and captions in foreign language study and found positive results, so that was reassuring. I remember also finding some articles that said “someday we might be able to” and basically describing some of what we were doing, so that was reassuring as well.
When I first came across Stephen Krashen’s writing, again this was long after we had a working models, probably around the time we launched in 2005, I was excited, because I thought what we were doing really was supported by what he had to say (about authentic content, enjoyable content, comprehensible input, the place of grammar etc.). I even wrote to him by email when I first read his stuff (with a private link to a prototype) because I thought he’d be excited by what we were doing. I think he did write back and he wasn’t very impressed, but that’s OK, I still like his writings and theories, and I often tell people who write to Yabla with questions about the “theory” of language learning to look him up. I have to be very careful mentioning Krashen because another journalist — my one other interview — asked a similar question and I stated that I like Krashen’s writings and I think that some of his theories support our approach. Krashen immediately wrote to the publication and said that he was not endorsing Yabla. So let me make it clear too — he is not! To sum up, Yabla stems out of my experience; I was completely ignorant about “learning theory” in the field of language learning. However, after I developed Yabla, I started reading academic writing about language learning and I found that some of it seemed to support what I was doing, which was encouraging.
Mark Knowles: Some might find the use of English subtitles controversial because students might use them as a crutch rather than work to understand the target. What might be one response to that criticism?
John Duquette: I have found some academic writings that would support it — for example that find that pure “immersion” monolingual dictionaries can actually be worse in terms of acquisition efficiency than bilingual dictionaries, but I don’t have them in front of me to cite. Yabla is a tool. You can turn off either subtitle, the target or the translation, or both, and in the course of using Yabla you are often going to choose all options (just target, just translation, both, none) on the same video to get the most out of it. Unless the video is far too easy for you, you are not going to just watch it once and be done with it. Well, you can of course, but you probably have not exhausted its educational value as far as you are concerned if you do that. But the videos have to be accessible and comprehensible at all levels, they can’t be frustrating. You will know, you will feel it, if the translation titles are subtracting from your learning, and I am sure that a great many of our customers shut the translation off when that’s the case. (And of course they can turn it on when they are stuck on something). By the way, any teacher can, if they want, make it so that their students do not have access to Yabla’s English subtitles. It’s there in the class settings the teacher has access to. We are working on some new activities that will help you squeeze more learning out of each video as well. I am not going to comment on them yet!
Mark Knowles: We have heard that Japanese, Hindi, and Russian, for example, might like their own Yabla channels. What drives your choices of additional languages to the channel line-up?
John Duquette: Quite honestly it has to be able sustain itself financially.
Mark Knowles: You must have some interesting international intellectual property tales through all your experience. Any wisdom (or humor) to share with us on that end of things?
John Duquette: I think I already did that with my story about Spotlight Verlag. There have been some other people blowing through a lot of “venture” money on Yabla clones. Once I accepted a meeting with such a person, but I didn’t like the guy much, and they wound up copying Yabla — the venture guys wound up abandoning it. They are only interested in explosive successes these days. We didn’t have the money for lawyers and patents. Back in the early 2000s I filed some provisional patent applications, which gives you a year to file the actual official application (kind of like a placeholder). But I didn’t have the time, money or expertise to file the official applications, and my time ran out. Currently we are writing applications for a few new language learning technologies, this time with a lawyer, though I am still highly involved in the drafting. With regards to videos, we pay to license much of the content. Or we get permission. Of course we produce some as well.
Mark Knowles: What’s next for Yabla? Do you have any plans you’d like to share with us?
John Duquette: We are working on some very interesting things. I think we will be able to make a big impact on language learners, both-self study and in the classroom. But I don’t want to say anything else at the moment. In the future, I’ll be happy to.
Mark Knowles: What do you think is the future of language technology?
John Duquette: I think it will continue to make use of new general (not education specific) technologies as they become available. I think that some fairly obvious and fairly simple needs are not yet being well addressed, and Yabla will play a part in doing so.