Talk to Me — in German!

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A wonderful innovation in the study of foreign languages is the use of the Internet to connect learners to native speakers. In some cases the learners write text that is commented on by the native speakers, while in other cases the two can talk with each other, such as in the Skype foreign language forums. These services provide a wonderful way for people to learn the truly important parts of a language: how to communicate with someone else from a different place and with a different background. Too often language skill acquisition is about formalisms and structure, rather than about communication.

An even more innovative way of learning language may be the ideas that Luis von Ahn is exploring in yet another one of his creative games. He is developing tools that allow native speakers of one language to help translate texts from another language that they do not know. The idea is that the tools will show the native speaker how to translate individual words, and the speaker will then fashion the result into idiomatically correct language in his or her native tongue. It is too early to know how well this will work, or if it does work whether the native speaker will actually be learning the other tongue or just volunteering his time in a useful way. In either case, the idea is fresh and interesting and I look forward to seeing how it works in practice.

Net Neutrality and Innovation

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This story in the New York Times ( discusses negotiations going on between google and verizon so that google services can get special access to Verizon’s data network. These sorts of agreements are a serious threat to competition on the Internet. The problem is that only large established players are going to be able to afford to pay for the enhanced service. Startup companies will be unable to get fast access to their services for consumers who might otherwise be interested.

The growth of the Internet is threatened if innovation can be stifled by these sorts of pair wise agreements. In order to encourage freedom and innovation we need to find a way to regulate the types of agreements that can be formed, and to ensure that others have access to the same levels of service quality. These principles are important, and they require regulation in order to create and maintain a fair and competitive marketplace of ideas.