ChatRoulette has been generating quite a bit of buzz over the past week or so. The concept is quite simple; you video chat with randomly selected people, and if you don't want to chat with any particular person, you just press F9 to get hooked up with another random person. It's the brainchild of some 17-year-old Russian kid who's now getting courted by U.S. investors.
The idea has great potential for language learning. However, before it can reach that potential, they're going to need to make a few changes.
And priority number one is getting rid of all the naked dudes.
Yes, there seems to be an abundance of dudes exposing themselves in various stages of undress. This article in the Hartford Advocate gives you a good idea of just how many there are. In short, it's definitely NSFW (and not safe for children, for that matter) and it's clearly not for the light of heart.
As you avoid the pervs, you'll also probably manage to sneak a good laugh or two in. One lady had a note posted in front of her camera that said "Your mother is watching". When I saw that (thinking in particular of all those pervs), I laughed. She removed the note and she was indeed a very maternal looking figure—a very typical "my friend's mom" type. She waved and moved on to the next stranger. Another guy was just sitting there with a big, green alien head on. He kind of cocked his head and stared, then he waved and moved on.
So there's definitely some amusement value to the site, but that's not what gets it a post on this blog. The thing that gets it on here is its potential as a language-learning tool.
I tried it out for maybe 2 or 3 hours in total, and in that time I managed to chat in Chinese, French, German, and Russian (although, as I don't speak Russian, that was limited to my bastardized interpretation of the Russian version of "Pleased to me you" in Latin letters and responding to the question "Kto vi?", which if I recall correctly means "Where are you?"). I also came across a Dutch guy, so had I any Dutch skills that would be on the list as well.
The award for the most diligent use of the website for language-learning purposes definitely goes to the Chinese. Just about every Chinese person I came across on there was looking to practice English. That of course shows the potential behind the idea; being able to get in touch quickly with a random language partner with no fuss would be a great tool.
There aren't really any other sites that do this. Livemocha, iTalki, LingQ, etc., all require you to contact the specific person you want to speak to; there's no "chat with random English speaker" feature. After using ChatRoulette, the idea definitely fell into the "Why didn't someone already think of this?" bucket.
However, as you've probably already gathered, ChatRoulette isn't anywhere near being a "no fuss" tool, but very little would actually need to be done to make the model effective for language learning. First, you'd of course need to toss out all the pervs, etc. That sort of thing doesn't seem to be an issue at all on Livemocha or other online language learning sites, so it shouldn't be a big deal to do that.
The second thing is that you'd need to be able to filter your chat partners. At a minimum, you should be able to filter by target language so you can get someone who speaks the right language for you, but being able to filter by age, interests, etc., could also be useful for finding someone interesting to talk to.
I don't have much hope that ChatRoulette itself will become a website I can recommend for language learning any time soon, but I very much look forward to language-learning websites implementing their version of the idea soon.
ChatRoulette Gets Fred Wilson’s Attention [GigaOM]
Next! [Hartford Advocate]