The last time I enrolled in a Mandarin language program was back in 2007, light years away in terms of technology. I considered myself lucky because I had a Besta CD-618 electronic dictionary and a weekly language partner to answer questions about slang and other words that weren’t in my (very dry) textbooks.
If Linqapp had existed back then, however, I would have passed out with joy. The app, which just launched on iOS, lets you pose questions to thousands of native speakers around the world. In the case of popular languages like Chinese, Spanish and English, you usually get answers to your questions in a few minutes.
Linqapp launched in October 2013 and now has 25,000 users who answer questions regularly. It’s a handy alternative to Google Translate when you need help from a human.
For example, I needed to buy a paint can key from a hardware store, but hoped to find a more elegant way of asking for one than “the thing that you open a can of paint with.” Within 10 minutes, I’d received five answers, including several that explained the difference between the vocabulary for a food can opener and the specific tool I needed for my containers of wood finish (two people attached helpful photos).
My query was a relatively simple one, but I’ve seen other users ask for help translating more abstract phrases like “a dry sense of humor,” as well as documents such as application and legal forms, and get helpful answers very quickly.
Co-founder Sebastian Ang sees Linqapp as a complement to language learning apps.
“We want to position Linqapp as the perfect companion for every language learner to have because it’s on your smartphone and it’s a free way to connect to native speakers and ask questions that Google Translate can’t answer,” he says.
Part of Linqapp’s appeal is its community. Many of the most active users are language students themselves and they therefore have incentive to provide accurate answers for other people in order to collect points that let them ask their own questions for free (points are also earned by liking Linqapp’s Facebook page, participating in events there, or inviting friends). Scoreboards track the top users in each language and you can follow and message other people.
The social component of Linqapp, however, is less appealing to people who just need a quick response. Ang says Linqapp plans to release a new app later this year, which will draw from the same user base as Linqapp so helpers can apply points to their accounts there, but have a simpler interface to appeal to travelers and other occasional users.
Before that, however, Ang plans to improve Linqapp’s push notification system, which is currently extremely busy. This is helpful for language buffs who want to answer new questions as quickly as possible to be in the running for points, but irksome for more casual users like me.
Since its launch two years ago, many people have also started using Linqapp to find language partners instead of just asking specific questions. The next version of Linqapp will allow users to filter push notifications by keywords and categories (like language questions versus language exchange requests) or set how many they want to see per day. Ang says the update, which will be finished in the next few months, is a top priority.
Linqapp is currently bootstrapped, though the startup is currently looking for strategic investors to accelerate its growth. Ang hopes that Linqapp will eventually be as quick as Google Translate, but with a human touch.
“If you read the questions and answers on Linqapp and see how people dig deep into them, it highlights how intricate languages are,” says Ang. “Answers from people are still going to be the place to go to compared to machines, because they don’t understand how complex languages are.”