Click talk!

By Huang Lanlan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/19 18:53:39

Popular app links English learners to native speakers

Late one night around 9 pm, Huang "Carol" Xiaoting sits in front of her computer greeting her online English tutor Steven Alan M. "Hi Steven, good morning!" "Hi Carol, how about today?"

Every night, Huang spends an hour chatting with New Yorker Steven on Cambly, a global online English learning and practicing platform. Founded in 2013, Cambly has attracted more than 1 million worldwide users who are interested in improving their spoken English.

Huang became a Cambly user in October of 2016 while working at a commercial real estate company. The then 30-year-old had never thought about improving her English until she met a foreign man during a train ride to Beijing.

"He was so tall and handsome!" Huang recalled dreamily. She tried chatting up the Caucasian, but embarrassedly found that she could hardly say anything once she opened her mouth. "I immediately regretted that I didn't study harder during my public school English lessons."

Huang decided to make English learning a new personal priority. She searched online, which is how she stumbled upon Cambly. At USD $5-10 per hour she was assigned private native-English-speaking tutors who were available "anytime and anywhere."

Her first Cambly tutor was an American named Kyle Will who lives near Washington D.C.. "I chose him because I believed that those who live near the US capital city must speak very authentic English," she laughed.

Will, Huang said, was a patient tutor who spoke slowly and clearly while providing pleasant casual conversations. "Will travels a lot and he is always glad to share his colorful experiences," Huang said. "Just by speaking with him my horizons have really broadened."

Founded by two former Google engineers four years ago, Cambly has over 2,000 tutors around the world. Photos: Courtesy of Cambly

2,000 tutors on standby

At present Cambly has more than 2,000 tutors around the world on standby. "Only native speakers of English can be Cambly tutors," said Head of Cambly China Michael Shou, who added that qualified tutors must have related teaching certificates (TEFL, TESOL, TESL). Prior English-teaching experience overseas is also a plus.

Apart from educational background and related work experience, Shou said that Cambly also attaches importance to the personalities of its tutors. "Whether they are nice, patient and warm-hearted, whether they are willing to help and encourage their students ... these things matter as well."

Four years ago, two former Google engineers founded Cambly in San Francisco. "It was difficult for us to speak a foreign language well unless we put it into use in our daily life," said co-founder Sameer Shariff, who said he picked up Spanish very quickly while traveling in Argentina. "As for learning a language, talking with natives is more effective and interesting than learning by rote in class."

Returning home from Argentina, Shariff and his coworker Kevin Law built an online platform to provide English learners one-to-one conversations with native speakers.

Leveraging OpenTok's recording capabilities, Cambly records every learning session so users can capture and playback their conversations with tutors at any time in order to hone in and refine their fluency.

At present Cambly has users in 130 countries and regions including China, Japan, Russia, Brazil and Middle East. Most are office workers or college students. "With more and more children learning English at a younger age, many middle-schoolers and even primary pupils have also become Cambly customers."

Type invitation code "GTpaper" to get a 15-minute conversation for free!

Dramatic improvement

Nine-year-old Caroline Du has used Cambly for the past two years after her father recommended it to her after using it himself. "Even though Caroline had already learned a bit English at her bilingual kindergarten, she was still unable to speak fluently," he recalled.

Du senior spent time selecting a suitable Cambly tutor for his young daughter, finally choosing a woman, Joanne, who is an American college teacher and a mother of four children. "With so many children herself, she must be well-experienced in teaching little kids," Du said.

Every night, Caroline practices her English for 30 minutes with Joanne via Cambly. From basic ABC to short sentences, Joanne instructs the girl with patient warmth. "If my daughter can't catch her words, Joanne repeats slowly for several times until Caroline can fully understand."

After two years of learning and practicing, Caroline's English has dramatically improved. She has even participated in children's English contests. "I'm proud of the progress she has made," Du senior said.

Tutor John G. Maxwell told the Global Times that responsibility and patience are essential in English teaching. Maxwell talks with Cambly users for 35 to 42 hours every week. Some, he said, are too shy or nervous to speak, requiring him to try his best to encourage them.

"It's not easy to get a timid and quiet person talking and it's challenging to find questions to get them to talk," he said. "I try to ask open-ended questions such as, 'Why do you want to study abroad?' or 'Tell me about your day.' Some students will talk more and others still will not at all. Another method is to show them a picture and ask them to talk about it."

A window to the world

College student Hu Qiongyin said she is quite happy with her Cambly tutor. Last year, while Hu was preparing for her TOEFL and IELTS tests, tutor Antonio voluntarily helped polish her compositions in his spare time. "Sometimes he even assigned me homework, asking me to write something about a certain topic," Hu recalled.

Earlier this year Hu was accepted into the University of Michigan Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute. She did well in the school's admission interview, which she credits to Cambly.

But for many Cambly users, the app is more than just an English-learning tool but also a window to the world. An Xun in China used to hold many stereotypes about young Americans. "I once thought that American millennials were very independent, living on their own and never needing their parents' help."

However, An's American tutor Barbara told her that many youngsters in the US still live with their parents after graduation, as in the current economic climate they are not able to afford housing on their own, let alone find a good-paying job.

"Similar to Chinese parents, I also learned that American parents also financially support their children when purchasing house, such as making the down payment for them," An said. "I was shocked when Barbara told me this!"

Huang likewise once held a stereotyped misconception about American teenagers, believing that high schoolers in the US spend all their free time partying and dating. "Just like what their TV and movies show."

So Huang turned to her tutors for a reality check. "They (American teens) actually spend a lot of time and energy in SAT preparation, college applications, internships and after-school jobs," she said. "They play hard but also work hard."

A number of Cambly customers have also reported using the app as a platform to make foreign friends and mentors. "My tutor, Rudi, loves music, so do I," said user Lu Feng. "He is a nice, positive guy and we have a lot of common interests to talk about."

Huang and her tutors have also become good friends. Last year, she mentioned to her tutors that she planned to lose weight through exercise. "Sometimes I wanted to give up, but they kept encouraging me to go to the gym while giving me various fitness tips," she recalled. "Foreigners are so health-conscious!"

With her tutors' encouragement and support, Huang recently participated in a half-marathon, a first for her, successfully finishing the race. "When I showed my medal to my tutors, they seemed even more excited than I was," she smiled. "For me they are more than language tutors. They are also like good friends in my daily life."

Grassroots information

Middle-aged Cambly user Xi Xi told the Global Times that she has her own "special purpose" using the popular app. A graduate of Shanghai International Studies University, Xi works in an English-language environment and thus does not feel the need to urgently practice.

Instead, she enjoys hearing the "true voices" of grassroots Westerners as opposed to the stiff, formal English-language business and news briefings she is usually deluged with online.

Xi eventually plans to send her teen daughter to either the US or the UK for university. Britain's exit from the EU and the new Trump administration have made her nervous and uncertain about her daughter's future abroad.

In this regard, Xi said that Cambly tutors on-location in those countries have helped relieve her anxiety and concerns.

As both of Xi's tutors have full-time experience at universities in the UK and the US, they assured her that the general policy of overseas student recruitment won't be significantly changed in the near future.

Xi said she trusts their first-hand, on-the-ground information over most Western news channels and would continue using Cambly specifically for that purpose.


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