Oxford Case Studies: Language Amigo

In the United Kingdom and the United States alone, there are more than 2,500 universities that teach Spanish. No wonder: Spanish is the second most studied language in the world.

Too often, though, students suffer from a lack of conversational practice. Their language skills develop in a vacuum. Their grammar and comprehension may be sound, but real fluency hovers tantalisingly out of reach.

Thanks to two Oxford MBA students, a novel way of developing students’ spoken Spanish has been found. Language Amigo is an online platform that harnesses modern technology to connect ‘amigos’ from Latin America with Spanish learners, who could be based anywhere. It’s an idea with upsides for everyone: amigos now have an extra income stream, while learners have a flexible, responsive way to practice their Spanish.

Creating opportunities

Macarena Hernandez, one of the students behind Language Amigo, takes up the story. “Language Amigo came about after I’d met Ana María Ñungo through Oxford’s MBA entrepreneurship project course. I’m from Mexico, while Ana Maria is from Columbia. We soon discovered a shared passion for social enterprise ideas. We wanted to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential.”

Both women had previously worked in social enterprise projects in Latin America, and they soon hit upon the idea of Language Amigo. “We would use video calls to connect the amigos and learners,” explains Macarena. “The result would be that Spanish learners have the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people. The Amigos, who would generally be talented youngsters at university, would be paid for their time.”

With help from the Oxford Hub, which gave Macarena and Ana Maria a ‘Try It’ social enterprise award, the pair launched Language Amigo in November 2016. “Initially, the service was trialled with six Amigos from Mexico and Colombia,” says Macarena. “We received great feedback at once. Our first learner, a DPhil student at Oxford, was very enthusiastic and rapidly became a regular user of the service before travelling for his research work to Colombia. He felt the calls with his Amigo really helped his language skills before arriving in the country.”

To fast forward just a few months is to find Language Amigo conducting its first paid-for institutional pilot. “We’ve agreed terms with a university in Virginia (Christopher Newport University),” says Macarena. “We’re providing sessions to 38 students of Spanish, and in turn providing flexible income and training to 15 Amigos.”

Making connections

Language Amigo’s founders now plan to take their idea to language centres, schools and universities in the UK and US – and, indeed, beyond. They’re grateful to the Oxford Hub, which advised them on marketing, sales and business issues as well as providing financial help, and are sticking to their ideological guns: “We believe the main objective in learning a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background,” says Macarena.

Meantime, a lecturer at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, gives his seal of approval to the venture: “Language Amigo is flexible and can easily adapt to our needs. They are very responsive and quick to take care of issues.”

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