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Bringing pen pals into the digital era: an interview with Bili founder Charlie Foot

Charlie Foot explains how he founded Bili, a language learning app which pairs together students in different countries

Charlie Foot is the founder of Bili, a learning app which pairs together language learners in different countries. He explains how his experience as a secondary school French teacher has informed the app

How would you describe Bili?

A simple way to put it might be that it’s the modern-day equivalent of having a pen pal. Bili is a platform through which teachers can structure and oversee meaningful interaction between their students. There are three simple steps:

  1.  A teacher matches students from different countries who speak different languages. E.g. an English student learning French would be paired with a French student learning English
  2.  Students complete weekly text, image, audio or video tasks set by the teacher
  3.  The students mark each other's work and respond to the tasks in their first language

Where is Bili being used at the moment?

We’re live in the UK (including one school in Scotland), France, Spain and Germany. I’m currently in discussion with a school in Singapore who would like to use Bili for French and Mandarin.

 

 Where did the idea come from?

It was an idea that only came about through my direct experience working as a French teacher at a secondary school. I tried several methods: I organised trips, tried to organise exchanges, and did my best to expose my students to ‘real’ French culture. But I felt it all was somehow lacking.

Interactions on a trip, although valuable, are short-lived. Physical exchanges are a logistical nightmare (not helped by all the red-tape), and whatever learning resource we brought into the classroom always felt slightly artificial or contrived. I was also growing tired of asking my classes to describe their pastime, favourite music and family members.

I wanted to find a context where students could share this information with someone who was genuinely interested, and vice versa. I wanted a way to connect my students to young people in a French-speaking country to regularly and purposefully communicate with one another.

I did some research on online language exchange for schools. Scrolling through the list, I found myself dismissing each one: too expensive, too time consuming, not secure, no structure. Nothing fitted the idea I was beginning to form in my head.

How did you go about founding Bili?

I started talking about it as an idea, seeing if other teachers felt the same and gradually I gained the confidence to actually do something about it. I got in touch with developers for quotes, and somehow a bit further down the line I had founded a company.

We were lucky enough to find a group of really passionate and experienced backers, including teachers and those with experience in edtech and startups. This meant we were at a stage in the summer to run a pilot across four schools in England and France.

Things have moved quite quickly since then and I’m delighted that we now have over 40 schools and over 2,000 students in the UK, France, Spain and Germany using the site.

An example of a conversation in Bili

Why do you think the amount of students choosing to learn foreign languages has been dropping?

Put simply, it’s clear that many students see languages as too difficult, don’t enjoy learning them and often don’t see the point. There’s a tendency to believe that we can ‘get by’ with English and learning another language is no longer seen as valuable.

At a recent conference about the value of languages post-Brexit, Bernardette Holmes, campaign director of Speak to the Future, said: ‘if English is an asset, make it an advantage, not a setback’. The decline in the number of students learning languages means that the advantage of being a native speaker of an international language is almost completely discounted by the fact that we can’t communicate in any other language.

We need to send out a clear message that we will suffer economically, socially and culturally if this trend continues. I passionately believe it’s the responsibility of everyone to challenge attitudes in society which undermine the value of learning a foreign language.

How important will technology be to the future of language learning?

I think we’ve already seen huge changes and a whole host of resources to support language learning. Examples are vocabulary learning resources like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone; the wide range of grammar drills and explanations online; and the ease of access to authentic foreign resources on the internet.

While these play an important role, I think the languages teacher will always be essential to keep communication central in the learning process and provide timely intervention and support.

That said, when used thoughtfully to complement effective teaching, technology has vast potential to enable learners to take more control of their own learning and connect to cultures and languages abroad.

 

Read our other interviews with edtech innovators here.




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Rob Parker

Rob managed FULL FABRIC's digital communications between September 2015 and September 2017.

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