busuu is an online language learning service. I did not refer to it in the ‘guide’ because it does not seem to use any adaptive learning software yet, but this is set to change. According to founder Bernhard Niesner, the company is already working on incorporation of adaptive software.

A few statistics will show the significance of busuu. The site currently has over 40 million users (El Pais, 8 February 2014) and is growing by 40,000 a day. The basic service is free, but the premium service costs Euro 69.99 a year. The company will not give detailed user statistics, but say that ‘hundreds of thousands’ are paying for the premium service, that turnover was a 7-figure number last year and will rise to 8 figures this year.

It is easy to understand why traditional publishers might be worried about competition like busuu and why they are turning away from print-based courses.

Busuu offers 12 languages, but, as a translation-based service, any one of these languages can only be studied if you speak one of the other languages on offer. The levels of the different courses are tagged to the CEFR.


In some ways, busuu is not so different from competitors like duolingo. Students are presented with bilingual vocabulary sets, accompanied by pictures, which are tested in a variety of ways. As with duolingo, some of this is a little strange. For German at level A1, I did a vocabulary set on ‘pets’ which presented the German words for a ferret, a tortoise and a guinea-pig, among others. There are dialogues, which are both written and recorded, that are sometimes surreal.

Child: Mum, look over there, there’s a dog without a collar, can we take it?

Mother: No, darling, our house is too small to have a dog.

Child: Mum your bedroom is very big, it can sleep with dad and you.

Mother: Come on, I’ll buy you a toy dog.

The dialogues are followed up by multiple choice questions which test your memory of the dialogue. There are also writing exercises where you are given a picture from National Geographic and asked to write about it. It’s not always clear what one is supposed to write. What would you say about a photo that showed a large number of parachutes in the sky, beyond ‘I can see a lot of parachutes’?

There are also many gamification elements. There is a learning carrot where you can set your own learning targets and users can earn ‘busuuberries’ which can then be traded in for animations in a ‘language garden’.


But in one significant respect, busuu differs from its competitors. It combines the usual vocabulary, grammar and dialogue work with social networking. Users can interact with text or video, and feedback on written work comes from other users. My own experience with this was mixed, but the potential is clear. Feedback on other learners’ work is encouraged by the awarding of ‘busuuberries’.

We will have to wait and see what busuu does with adaptive software and what it will do with the big data it is generating. For the moment, its interest lies in illustrating what could be done with a learning platform and adaptive software. The big ELT publishers know they have a new kind of competition and, with a lot more money to invest than busuu, we have to assume that what they will launch a few years from now will do everything that busuu does, and more. Meanwhile, busuu are working on site redesign and adaptivity. They would do well, too, to sort out their syllabus!

  1. In the article in El País I was amused by the fact that the basic service is free, as you say, but ‘you pay extra (six euros a month) for the grammar’. This represents an interesting take on the role of grammar in language learning – as ‘added value’ but, perhaps, not absolutely necessary. Of course, given that most learners assume that grammar IS absolutely necessary, it’s bound to be a money-spinner. Private language academies will be kicking themselves for not having thought of this first!

    • LauraELT says:

      Absolutely. it’s as if they were saying: ‘ you can learn the words for free, but if you want to be able to put them together to build up a message you have to pay’. Would it be too risky in terms of profit to incorporate tasks where user learners work out the grammar? Am being naively provocative here.

  2. Scott C says:

    Scott, I think you’ve hit on a new marketing strategy. “Come for the speaking, pay for the grammar!”

    I love the fact that buusuberries are awarded for feedback on others’ work. It seems human interaction and learning are not encouragement enough.

  3. philipjkerr says:

    busuu have just signed a deal with Pearson. ‘The deal gives busuu’s user base access to an affordable online test, gSET by Pearson English, which — in Plain English — is an assessment based on a globally recognised standard for learning English as a foreign language. In other words, if you are a TOEFL teacher right now, I’d consider looking into a new career, because this is a seriously disruptive move’ … read more at http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/09/language-learning-giant-busuu-signs-pearson-deal-to-disrupt-tefl-market/

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