IT IS early evening in Berkeley, California, and Chrissy Schwinn, a sinophile environmentalist, walks ten feet from her kitchen to her home office for her Chinese lesson. She has already listened to that day’s dialogue, which arrived as a free podcast, on her iPod. She has also printed out the day’s Chinese characters, which arrived along with the podcast. Now her computer’s Skype software—which makes possible free phone calls via the internet—rings and “Vera”, sitting in Shanghai where it is late morning, says Ni hao to begin the lesson.
One might call it “language-learning 2.0,” says Ken Carroll, an Irishman who in 2005 co-founded Praxis, the company that provides Ms Schwinn’s service, after hearing about these “Web 2.0” technologies from his slightly geekier co-founders, Hank Horkoff, a Canadian, and Steve Williams, a Briton. The penny dropped at once.