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TalkAbroad connects U.S. college students with native speakers

Trent Wachner, an assistant marketing professor at Creighton University, has teamed up with Todd Nichols, founder of TalkAbroad, at the Halo Institute this summer. Photo by Andrea Ciurej.

Foreign language study, which is central to Todd Nichols’ company, TalkAbroad, wasn’t central to his early college career.

“I found the memorization of words and the grammar studies to be pretty dry,” said Nichols, an Omaha native.

His outlook on learning a second language changed, however, when he studied abroad in Cuba and put what he had learned into practice.

“It challenged me to really open up and say, ‘OK, let me talk with you and find out what your life is about,’” he said. “It was the most motivating, the most fun learning experience that I really ever had.”

This experience encouraged Nichols to move to Honduras following his college graduation.

There, he served as a teacher at the International School of Tegucigalpa and the coordinator of adult education at Ministerios Cristianos de Mayordomia, also in Tegucigalpa.

“It was really just an idea of ‘Wow, I really enjoy this. It really motivated me. I learned Spanish this way,’” he said. “What if we could get that into the classroom, so that every student could actually just talk with people, learn about their lives and learn through building relationships rather than simply learning by books.”

Nichols took on this initiative by founding TalkAbroad, a service which uses online video conferencing to connect U.S. students enrolled in a second language course with native speakers of a particular language.

Similar to buying a required book at the start of the semester, students sign up for a semester’s worth of conversations on TalkAbroad. Individual sessions are also available for purchase, and each session is often one-on-one.

“The primary goal and functionality is to help the teacher manage a large group of people and provide them to have the opportunity to have conversations regularly,” Nichols said, “and in a way that can efficiently be integrated into their curriculum.”

TalkAbroad also creates employment opportunities for native speakers by allowing them to speak their native tongue to American students.

Students from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, have already embraced TalkAbroad.

For the next five months, Nichols is partnering with the Halo Institute – an Omaha-based non-profit that nurtures entrepreneurial talent – to focus on developing his company.

Nichols said he expects four to six universities to be using it this fall.

Creighton University is one of the institutions set to incorporate TalkAbroad into its business curriculum under the direction of Trent Wachner, an assistant marketing professor.

However, the university will use Nichols’ company in a different capacity.

“I really want my students to interact with foreign businesses and understand the culture,” Wachner said. “I want them to be able to actually talk with people that are business owners.”

Using TalkAbroad’s technology, Wachner is spearheading another company, ConnectAbroad, to allow students to engage with foreign businesses.

Wachner said the functionalities of his company are very similar to Nichols’ creation.

The only difference is that students are encouraged to speak with foreign business owners in developing nations to formulate a business or marketing plan for their business.

Wachner, who consults Chinese businesses, said foreign businesses are looking for ways to speak with American consumers to better understand their market.

“A lot of [foreign] businesses want to do business in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re actually going to do some consulting with these businesses.”

With the help of Nichols, ConnectAbroad will fill the void of interpersonal communication in technology.

“What’s ideal is if you can meet somebody in person, but we feel that once you’ve exchanged a video conference with [someone] it really changes the relationship,” Wachner said.

Through their partnership with Halo, Nichols and Wachner hope to strengthen language and business curricula for professors and students.

“We’re working to prove the market and get in front of professors,” Nichols said, “and be able to meet the need that’s there.”


More on TalkAbroad

Screenshot of TalkAbroad homepage

Website: talkabroad.net

Founder: Todd Nichols

Founded: 2006

Based in: Mountain View, California (Founder currently operating out of Omaha)

About the company: TalkAbroad uses online video conferencing to connect U.S. students enrolled in a second language course with native speakers of a particular language.

Company goals: To help students learn languages, help professors provide speaking opportunities, and create jobs and new business owners throughout Central America.

Examples of assignments created by professors:

  • Three-page paper on the city of Tegucigalpa. Interview at least two current residents of Tegucigalpa for the paper and be sure to include quotes.
  • Class discussion on the regional dialects of Spanish. Have a conversation with residents from three different Latin American countries. Come prepared with notes on the use of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar of each person.
  • Have a 30-minute conversation with a resident of Nicaragua for a final test. Record and submit the conversation via TalkAbroad.

User experiences from Intermediate Spanish students at California Polytechnic State University:

  • This exercise is definitely the best way to learn a language. We both thought that we know conversational phrases and vocab adequately but it is a lot more difficult to talk in Spanish when the person is in front of you and responding right away. I would really love to do it again in the future.
  • We talked about travel and where we had gone, as well as where we want to go in the future. We also talked about what we do for fun, music and sports. We also had a discussion on video games.
  • The TalkAbroad program is a great idea for all Spanish language classes. The student we talked to was extremely down-to-earth and actually helped us significantly with our Spanish. I would recommend it in the future to all your Spanish courses.

Here’s a walkthrough of TalkAbroad’s service:

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