My German career: 'Learning German should just be the side effect of a really fun activity.'
This Berlin-based programmer and entrepreneur was struggling to learn German. So he built a website to teach himself - and others - while having a few laughs in the process.
Jeremy Smith is used to mastering all sorts of challenges.
The Berlin-resident and native upstate New Yorker first went to university at the age of 26, acquiring a degree in computer science. In the years that followed, he founded a fantasy football startup, played professional poker for three years, and helped to manage the Brooklyn-based makerspace 3rd Ward.
But one of his biggest obstacles to overcome was learning German. Upon moving to Berlin, which he was drawn to for its creativity and lower cost of living, he made efforts to converse with his German flatmate based on the language-learning apps he had previously used.
Yet his initial confidence was deflated when his flatmate “would try to converse with me and I would just feel lost". He turned to private tutoring, but said: “There were no building blocks, it was just reactive. It was like: here’s what’s wrong but not why it’s wrong.”
So Smith decided to found his own German-learning website, Seedlang, incorporating all of the methods he felt were lacking in other language-learning tools to which he had previously turned.
The website uses fun and original video to lead students through story-based learning exercises that emphasize speaking and listening.
It has a content tree of stories related to specific grammar topics as well as a vocab trainer with 4000 words that span the levels between A1 and B2.
“It should be that learning German is just the side-effect of a really fun activity,” says Smith of the user experience that he created.
Seedlang's 'content tree', which uses video clips from YouTube channel Easy German - and partners with its producers to create original ones - for interactive exercises.
A homage to Berlin
On its homepage, Seedlang pays homage to Smith’s Stadt of choice Berlin, writing that the product is “Made with <3 in Berlin”.
“There’s access to a lot of talent here. There’s a lot of start-up oriented people, a lot of creativity, counterculture and it just seems to have the most in common with my own sensibilities,” says Smith.
Living in the German capital, he says, puts him “face to face” with his own struggles everyday of learning the language. He acknowledges that there are “aspects of the city that make it more difficult to learn German,” such as the prevalence of English speakers.
But, “It obviously can be done. There are a lot of resources,” he says. Berlin has also become the seat of other language learning websites and apps such as Lingoda, Babbel and Chatterbox.
And every November, the city hosts the sprawling Expolingua Berlin, a trade fair for anyone involved with teaching or learning languages.
Goofy yet grammatically correct
Especially since Smith started college later than usual in the U.S., he doesn’t define himself in one role.
“I’m using skills being a programmer with something hands on and creative,” he says. “I just see programming as a tool to build the types of experiences that I want to build.”
The type of experience with Seedlang boils down to using videos - now drawing from a library of over 8,000 - in order to create interactive exercises.
All of the clips are created in-house and he also partners with Easy German, which interviews people on the streets about a variety of topics from German culture (The Local co-hosted a video about the quirks of German supermarkets in October) to the intricacies of grammar.
Smith and Cari Schmid from Easy German having fun in Berlin with German learning. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Smith.
In a recent video on “Je...desto”, for example, Seedlang uses Easy German video clips to illustrate a series of goofy yet grammatical points. For example, in one video of a student eagerly running across a lawn for his lunch, the subheads states: “Je schneller Andrew rennt, desto eher ist er beim Mittagsessen,” or “The quicker Andrew runs, the quicker he reaches his lunch".
Soon Smith will launch a new site section which allows people to learn while playing a trivia game, head-to-head with other language learners, while building up vocabulary, listening comprehension, and knowledge about German culture. In May or June, Seedlang will also launch a mobile app.
As with the website, it will feature a series of fun activities for learning German - whether repeating the native speakers you hear in videos or drilling verb pronunciation, verb gender, and preposition pairs.
“We try to straddle line between very serious respect for grammar and understanding that grammar is necessary for correcting your own mistakes,” says Smith, “but then also having the presentations be so entertaining that it doesn’t feel so serious.”