This App Can Help You Learn a Foreign Language by Just Browsing the Internet

Toucan is a Chrome extension that automatically translates a few words of any article online, helping users reach their language-learning goals in a natural way

15.09.2020 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Learning a foreign language to fluency takes dedication, time and ambition. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it can take anywhere from 480 to 720 hours for a native English speaker to reach “basic fluency” in another language.

Toucan, an extension for the Google Chrome internet browser, wants to help users learn a foreign language—without taking time away from other tasks they need to do. It translates randomly selected words into the target language from articles that users are reading online, exposing them to new vocabulary in a natural context.

The extension, which has both a free and premium version, is currently available to English speakers looking to learn Spanish, French, German, Italian or Portuguese.

Vocabulary quizzes are used to keep track of what words Toucan can phase out of the rotation as well as the phrases that need a bit more practice. Users can add packs to their accounts to increase the number of words the extension inserts into their articles.


Example of Toucan

Toucan Chrome browser extension in action


Toucan is planning to eventually extend to other browsers and languages, as well as possibly apply the concept to other academic subjects such as history and science.

CEO Taylor Nieman held a variety of roles in tech startups such as Headspace before founding Toucan. Throughout all those experiences, she told TechCrunch that she discovered how difficult “habit formation” can be—“how hard it actually is to do anything that steals people’s time.”

Similarly, although CPO Brandon Dietz recognises the utility of language learning software like Duolingo and Rosetta, he agreed with Nieman, saying, “It’s just such a high ask to get people to change their behavior and go to this one website.”

Toucan works with a team of translators to ensure accuracy and utilises natural language processing to learn more about the context of the words the extension is translating. Users are able to report inaccuracies in the translations.

The extension is mostly free to use. Premium suscriptions include access to customised vocabulary lists for specific situations, such as attending a business meeting or wedding. Users can also suggest topics directly to the Toucan team.

Users can also “own a word” for a week, in that the user’s name will appear whenever that word is translated by Toucan. Both individuals and businesses have taken advantage of this feature, such as Trip Advisor (travel), Zoro Card (credit check), Netflix (movies) and Movember (mustache).

The extension can be used alongside language classes to build vocabulary or to merely learn a few words to reach, as Dietz put it, “that magic moment of realising you know a few words in other people’s languages.”

The startup raised $3 million in a seed funding round led by GSV Ventures, with participation from Amplifyher Ventures, Wonder Ventures, Golden Ventures, Halogen Ventures, Vitalize Ventures and angel investors.

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