PlaySay: Social Language Learning App Launches With $820k And A HarperCollins Deal In Its Pocket

The education market — as Apple and others have noticed — represents a huge mobile opportunity, and today sees the launch of an app that plays on that potential, with added gamification and social twists. PlaySay, a “social language learning” startup, today debuts a free, new Spanish/English iPhone app — along with a licensing deal with HarperCollins and an additional $250,000 in funding, taking total backing in the company up to $820,000.

We first heard about PlaySay last year, when it launched at the TC Disrupt conference as a Facebook app that let users learn languages through Facebook’s own content translated into your foreign language of choice: “Your Facebook friends are your new classmates. Check ins, status updates and pictures are your course materials,” founder Ryan Meinzer said at the time. The new iPhone app plays on a similar idea, except that it uses PlaySay’s own platform as the basis of the language learning.

Like runaway sensation Draw Something, PlaySay’s app is a game that lets users connect with a partner elsewhere to progress. In the case of PlaySay, it incorporates real conversations and pronunciation feedback with native speakers into a narrative structure, constructed as “missions,” in the parlance of the app. There’s more detail on how it works in the video below.

And, also like Draw Something, it’s designed to be played in turns, making it a supremely flexible game/learning tool for people on the go.

Looking at the content, it’s more about locking down phrases and practical usage than it is about formal language learning, but as any language student knows, you don’t really learn a language until you start to use it. Not all of the content is serious. (“Mashed potato, please” being one of my random favorites, except that I don’t really like mashed potatoes very much.)

The company says that the app was four years in the making, and originally arose out of Meinzer’s own attempts to learn Japanese. And in fact PlaySay already had a number of other apps in the App Store using its technology to learn languages like Japanese, French and Spanish.

Although this new, gamed-up, social app is launching with only two languages — English and Spanish — you can expect that list to grow.

Meanwhile, the licensing deal with HarperCollins is a big win for PlaySay, in that HC is the biggest foreign-language dictionary publisher in the world. It comes on top of an existing deal with McGraw-Hill, and both publishers will be incorporated into PlaySay’s upcoming premium content model: those who pay up will be able to access “professional publisher content to further enhance their language learning,” the company says.

Backers of PlaySay also speak to how the company is pitching itself in the future as an educational/business force to be reckoned with. They include Kevin Yu, the former director of PayPal Japan; Sean Glass, founder of online educational payment disbursement company Higher One; and Novak Biddle Venture Partners, one of the bigger and more active VCs in the education space.