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'Speak Shop' Explores New Way To Foreign Language Learning

Starting a new business is difficult at the best of times. But if you’re also trying to make that business altruistic, the job can be doubly difficult.

One Oregon couple is using their computer — and friends in Guatemala — to help people learn a second language.

As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the couple is revolutionizing the way Americans learn a second language and hoping to help Guatemalan teachers earn a better wage.

Clay and Cindy Cooper live in a small Northeast Portland home. It’s also where they run their small business – Speak Shop.

Cindy Cooper: “Hi Sylvia.”

Sylvia: "Hello,"

Cindy Cooper: “Welcome.”

“You want a coffee or anything?”

This morning, Sylvia Tesh is dropping round to take a Spanish lesson.

For a $10 a month fee, she has joined Speak Shop and been given access to Aracey Rogel, a Spanish teacher based in the small town of Antigua, Guatemala.

Now that Tesh belongs to Speak Shop, she pays $8 an hour for  Spanish lessons with Rogel.

Cindy Cooper helps her log on.

Cindy Cooper: “Okay, so we’ll go ahead and get started. I’m just going to log in.  So you can see how this works, I’m just putting an e-mail address into the homepage Speak-Shop-dot-com. And then we just click log-in and we click this button that takes us to the video conferencing area inside….And then you see Aracey, who is in Guatemala.


Aracey Rogel "Ola Cindy.”

With that, Tesh sits down and starts her lesson.

It’s a dramatic new way that Tesh and others can learn to speak a foreign language, without having to fly overseas or be tied to a rigid classroom timetable.

The same freedoms come with language computer programs, like Rosetta Stone. But say the  Coopers, there’s just nothing like learning from a real person.

Clay Cooper: “You get that immediate response, that immediate sort of feedback. In terms of what you’re saying, is it correct, are you pronouncing the word correctly. And you get the emotional support. Because the tutors are very encouraging and very patient and they make you laugh, and they make it fun and it helps encourage you to want to take your lessons and stick with it.”

Cindy Cooper: “Yeah, and it engages your brain that really helps you retain the information. You’re talking in a way that is contextualized and you’re interacting in a really rich way with a real person. And that’s what motivates people. Is being to truly communicate with a real human being.”

Cindy says Speak Shop is an innovative new business model that promises not only to fundamentally change the way people learn a second language, but to also bring the world a little closer together.

As the business grows, she hopes customers will be able to learn any new language they want from the comfort of their own home. All they need is a computer, a $30 webcam and broadband access.

But the Cooper’s mission goes further.  Part of their reason for starting the business is to increase the amount of money teachers in the third world receive.

For example, says Cindy, it’s common that English teachers in Guatamala to have a university education but still live in open air homes with a dirt floors. To make matters worse, she says, the work is cyclical.

Cindy Cooper: “It’s driven by tourism and tourism is really only prolific in Guatemala for three months out of the year and for the rest of the year, these teachers are basically fired. There isn’t any way to pay them because there isn’t anybody there.   So the internet allows them to connect with a world market of students, year round. So not only are they making more per hour, and they’re netting about twice as much per hour on line right now through Speak Shop, but they’re able to teach year round, so it’s a huge significant increase in what they can bring home.”

Currently, if you fly to Guatemala to take lessons, you might pay $4 an hour.  Of that money, the teacher gets only about $1.50 an hour – because they’re employees of a school that has overhead costs.

Cooper says that with Speak Shop, teachers can bring in three times as much — about $4 an hour, after paying overhead.

Butting in on Sylvia Tesh’s lesson, I ask her teacher Aracey Rogel, what difference the additional income makes.

Sylvia Tesh: “Oh she says it’s a really wonderful economic good. Very often one’s husband doesn’t earn enough, so there’s more money for the school for the children, more money for just daily life.”

Tesh says she’s pleased to a be able to make such a difference in someone’s life. And she says, there’s just a certain joy in getting to know someone overseas.

Sylvia Tesh: “I feel I’m connected to her. I met her first on line. And I immediately felt that she could be a friend. Even though we only had a few lessons. She’s  wonderful person. And in fact, when I went to Guatemala last week, I felt like I was meeting a friend. We talked several hours a day for a whole week. And she invited me to her home, I met her family."

So far, Speak Shop isn’t large. The Coopers have about 200 customers and their main living comes from  other part-time work they’re both doing.

But the Shop is growing.

It could also get a significant boost if it wins the "Project Enterprise Contest" — a competition for so-called "social entrepreneurs"  put on by PBS's NOW. Speak Shop is one of just four national finalists out of a pool of 100.

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