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Language-Learning App Can Open Opportunities for International Business

Language-Learning App Can Open Opportunities for International Business

Money may be the international language, but chances are you'll need to speak at least a few foreign words if you want to deal effectively with international business partners and vendors. So how can you learn quickly? Well, there's a free app for that. PlaySay, built for iOS, pairs aspiring polyglots for real conversations.

Here's how it works. An English-speaking user chooses a phrase from a preselected list (e.g., "Hello, how are you?" or "Steak. Medium-rare.") and records it for a partner--a Spanish-speaking PlaySay user who has indicated a desire to learn English. The app provides the phrase in Spanish. Once the first user has mastered the pronunciation, the recording is sent to the partner, and the collaborative learning begins, with sentence-by-sentence translations in both languages. The service isn't meant for formal learning--it teaches practical phrases to get you through a conversation.

PlaySay, powered in part by Nuance Communications' speech-recognition technology, is currently available only in Spanish, but plans are to expand to 26 languages, starting with Japanese, Italian and a Korean app for Android.

The San Francisco-based company originated from founder and CEO Ryan Meinzer's need to learn Japanese; he set about coding and building audio flashcards to teach himself the language. A meeting with former director of PayPal Japan Kevin Yu led to the creation of the business--and scored Meinzer his first investor.

Launched in May, the app has more than 70,000 users. PlaySay has raised $820,000 from Yu and others, including early-stage IT investment firm Novak Biddle Venture Partners and Sean Glass of Higher One, which provides financial aid services for universities. PlaySay has deals with publishers McGraw-Hill and HarperCollins to integrate their language-learning textbook content into its products, and is looking at offering premium in-app networking features, such as allowing users to connect on Facebook.

"We have a simple theory," Meinzer says, "that what's going to keep people engaged with learning language is conversation--conversations with real people."

Like this article? Get this issue right now on iPad, Nook or Kindle Fire.

This article was originally published in the September 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Great Communicator.

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