Laugh your way to language learning with Gymglish

Interview of Benjamin Levy published on (Portal of the Economy) on May 11th 2021.

For almost two decades, Gymglish has managed to put the right words in  learners’ mouths but also a smile on their faces. This is thanks to a philosophy that embeds language learning in a cultural context. 

At Gymglish, we are convinced that a language can only be mastered in the long term if it is emotionalized through context, like an inspiring narrative storytelling for instance. The stylistic approach we chose is humor.” – Benjamin Levy, Gymglish co-founder.

Gymglish’s adaptive learning approach is complemented by smart AI software that personalizes content and delivers it to learners in easy-to-digest, 10-minute lessons every day. Behind this innovative technology is Antoine Brenner, Gymglish’s technical mastermind. The result is a language service that cracked the 5 million user mark in 2020, and has recorded top participation rates averaging 80%. Benjamin Levy, Gymglish co-founder, has agreed to answer a few questions about the powerful impact of humor.

Do French people have their “own” sense of humor? How would you describe it?

Many French people may think so, and would probably describe it as unique. Personally I’m not sure. Of course, the French, like many other people and cultures, have a sense of humor and a certain attitude and lifestyle that defines them. They have a long-time tradition of comedy (in theater notably), they like to laugh about random situations and are not afraid to mock people or things. Moreover, some French people love jokes about traditionally taboo topics like adultery. However, that doesn’t apply to everyone, and “French humor” is multi-faceted. If I had to settle on the most obvious ingredients and influences of French humor, I would say it’s a reflection of its society and population. It’s a mix of different cultural influences, including Latin/Mediterranean ability to laugh out loud about many things, North European/UK tendencies for sarcasm and irony, but also North African influences with a more pronounced passion for mockery and derision.

Is it a cliché that French people can’t take a joke when it comes to themselves?

I would say that French people sometimes lack the capacity to make fun of themselves: self-derision and self-deprecation is much more prevalent in British, Belgian or Jewish senses of humor for example. I’ll let you in on an anecdote from our marketing team: our best-performing slogan for our French course Frantastique,is “Arrogance doesn’t come overnight, it takes practice. Learn French“. Although the slogan got a lot of clicks from online visitors, some of our top French media partners asked us not to use it because they believed it sounded like “French bashing”.

Censured slogan by some of our French media partners as they felt it was French bashing.

Why is culture so important in language learning?

Cramming and mastering dull grammar exercises and books does not give a holistic understanding of a language. I believe in a pedagogical approach to learning that is story- and context-based. Culture is inherent in a language and therefore cannot be ignored. Someone who is genuinely interested in learning a language over the long run should also, and likely does, want to learn about a country’s music, culinary traditions and the customs of its native speakers. Humor plays a key role here of course. It is one of the many ingredients which help break down the strict pedagogical barriers to learning. Inspiring storytelling can motivate in a completely different way than traditional approaches.

How do you add cultural and humorous references in your online courses?

First, we incorporate language into stories and everyday situations. For example, in our French course Frantastique, learners may be asked to understand the words of a French boulanger, communicate with a waiter in a Parisian café, or learn about some of France’s best cheeses. In our stories, we feature everyday situations from professional and private worlds – all with a touch of humor and all carefully written and curated by our talented and funny team of authors. By mixing both teachers (experts) and learners (non-experts) in our content creation process, we don’t work according to a strict top-down model. We strive to take into account all perspectives and learning levels in order to adequately reflect our learners’ needs. Learners (aka non-experts) of a language have a good sense of what’s difficult, funny or surprising. They also provide interesting insights on  how they view stereotypes and jokes about parts of the culture and language they are learning about. This explains why I participated in designing our English course and why our English/American team members helped design our French course.

Who makes up the creative writing team?

Our team is made up of authors and editors who all have a background or experience in teaching and are all native speakers of the language they teach, but were hired for their creative writing skills (more so than their teaching skills). As a result, the team is very diverse, and features American, British, French, German, Spanish, Colombian and Italian members. The content creation process is a collective work of native and non-native speakers. The creative ‘nucleus’ is made of Andrew Arnon (US), Jim Sheppard (UK) and me, main authors of the Word of the month, a monthly spotlight on current events. The format combines original artwork along with words, definitions, examples and expressions from members of the Gymglish creative team. The content is representative of our tone, humor, style and graphic approach. Small plug: we are currently planning to publish a book from this series.

How would you describe the German sense of humor?

Some French people say that Germans have no sense of humor. I disagree. Just like the French, Germans enjoy a wide diversity of sub-cultures and influences. They can depict a whole range of humorous forms – from sarcasm to absurdity. The humorous ingredients in our courses cannot be attributed to one cultural group. Rather, they represent a cross-section, just like our content creation team from France, Germany, UK and the US. Fun fact: we know for sure that our German users have stronger participation rates in our courses than their French counterparts. Does that mean that they have a better sense of humor? ;).

What are some funny features of French characters in your courses?

In our French lessons, we often feature French stereotypes in order to turn them on their head. We confront stereotypes and prejudices with an open mind such as with the beret, the baguette, the cliché that we smoke constantly, don’t wash, are arrogant… the idea that French waiters are rude, that Parisians say non all the time, and so on. In order to complete this mission we are helped by a familiar face: Victor Hugo, one of the main characters in Frantastique, our French course.

France is known for comic characters like Asterix et Obelix. Did these characters influence the content of Gymglish’s humorous courses?

Not really, though I did like Asterix et Obelix as a child. However, our legacy of comics/cartoons books and humorous drawings may indeed have influenced Gymglish in such a way that we have always preferred drawings and animations to illustrate our lessons, rather than stock photos.

Which funny characteristics of German characters are depicted in your courses?

The fact that Germans have unique terms for every situation in life (Kindergarten, Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz, Schadenfreude, Poltergeist, etc. We also sometimes make reference to the automotive industry, and Germany being a land of engineers and logical people. German fairy tales, such as Struwwelpeter and Grimm’s Fairy Tales also offer a good target to build stories around. Germans’ inclination for traveling to Spain and/or to nudist beaches also inspired us with a few fun stories, among many other things.

Did you have funny teachers at school?

Not at all. School was boring as hell, especially language classes. Classes were mostly dull grammar exercises and endless vocabulary lists. Our language teachers (who were mostly French) did not manage to emotionalize content or awaken deeper curiosity for a language, a country or a culture. If you were lucky, you learned a language outside of school, provided you had the time and the energy to do so. I am glad that my wanderlust (another German term) has brought me to love and embrace language learning.

Last but not least: what are Antoine and your funniest quirks?

In our old office, Antoine used to do somersaults on the floor whenever we would close a big B2B order or when we had a peak in new users. He’s not part of the content team though, but still the team (including me) thought it was pretty hilarious. As for me, they say it’s fun (or old-fashioned) that the first thing I ordered for my new office was a small mini bar. I just prefer to toast to every new customer. Cheers!

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