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Interview with Phrasebase.com

At «www.phrasebase.com» you can learn a lot about every country, language and culture of the world. On top of this you can meet friends to share your experiences and practise your language skills. In the following interview Jeff Hock, the founder of Phrasebase is telling us why and how he is running his unique website.

Torsten:
Jeff, your project is called Phrasebase and you are creating the largest language community on the Internet. When and how did you get started?

Jeff:
I started Phrasebase in 1997 when my former company assigned me to live and work in Japan. Not knowing a single word of Japanese, I found myself immersed in the bustle of Tokyo, struggling with common, everyday tasks. My hectic travel schedule made it difficult to take classes or tutoring and I was disenfranchised with the collection of books, tapes and CD's I had amassed. Most do a far better of a job marketing than actually helping you learn.

A friend recommended I keep a small diary book and write down everything I wanted to say when I needed to say it. Essentially, to build my own custom phrasebook. Carrying it with me at all times allowed me to study periodically throughout the day. This proved to be an incredibly effective self-study language learning technique.

In less than 2 years I had become conversational in Japanese, having created 4 personalized diary phrasebooks in the process. I then posted the contents of my diary books online to help others learn Japanese. When doing so, I realized that the same format could just as easily be applied across all languages. For instance, «Wow are you?« in English equals «O genki desu ka?» in Japanese which equals «Wie gehts?« in German... and so forth. Thus spawned the idea for Phrasebase.

At it's core, Phrasebase is an intelligent online phrasebook supporting over 90 languages. It can be used as a self-study tool to learn or maintain conversational proficiency in a foreign language. But Phrasebase has since grown to include a community of teachers, students and language exchange partners as well as detailed facts, information and discussions about every country, culture and language in the world.

Torsten:
What company did you work for when you were sent to Japan and what was your job?

Jeff:
I worked at Autodesk, a leading design automation software company most recognized for it's flagship product AutoCAD. I held a variety of technical sales and marketing positions during my 10 year tenure, seven years of which was based in Asia; 5 years in Japan, 2 years in Singapore. With an extensive academic and career background in Engineering, some say that my work developing the «Phrasebase Approach» to language learning can also be described as the engineering behind language learning.

Torsten:
How much time do you spend working on Phrasebase every day and do you have another job in addition to administering your website?

Jeff:
The time I spend varies greatly as I have no set routine. By far, the majority of my work now involves coordinating and logistics with all of the partners.

Torsten:
Who programs the translation software and other interactive features at Phrasebase?

Jeff:
I do this, but most of the work building infrastructure and system features was completed a couple of years ago. The system keeps track of every phrase searched for, if it is not already in the database, then it gets routed to a «wishlist» database, along with the number of people who have requested it. Once a certain number of people request a given phrase, it gets added. The language partners are notified of all new additions and are able to add in their translations. I plan to do a maor overhaul to the system once I get a window of time.

Torsten:
The Phrasebase forum has more than 13000 members to date and 25 Administrators from all around the world. How did you manage to build such a huge and diverse e-Community?

Jeff:
Largely word of mouth. I've been extremely fortunate to have assembled a team of language administrators and partners whose contributions makes the site what it is today. From its conception, Phrasebase has been an altruistic project connecting people from around the world, match making those who are eager to teach and share their native language and culture with those seeking to learn it. I've stayed true to this idealism and feel it's the single reason we've been able to attract and retain so many genuinely kind, decent and talented people. Phrasebase is all about the people.

Torsten:
What do you do apart from working on Phrasebase?

Jeff:
Aside from Phrasebase, I am working on a few other web projects, www.mycharityevent.com is a unique site that helps individuals and small teams to create, promote and archive their own personalized achievement-based charitable fund raising event. I'm having a hard time executing on it and gaining traction, so haven't put a lot of mind share into it lately. Ideally, I would like to find a partner who can take it and run with it.

I try to organize and execute my own charitable fund raising events each year. The ideas I'm bouncing around for 2005 include re-tracing the Dali-lama's flee from Tibet over the Himalayans into India by bike, or biking Kilimanjaro. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. The most challenging aspect by far is coordinating with sponsors, the non-profit organization we'll be supporting and donors. These pre-event activities are about 10 times more demanding than the actual event.

I also built www.free-vacation-rentals.com which is a growing list of vacation homes and rentals from around the world. Otherwise, I am into sailing, mountain biking and visiting friends and family around the world.

Torsten:
What are your goals for the next 3 years?

Jeff:
For Phrasebase, my goal is to make it the leading one stop destination for language learning online. The vast majority of language learning websites focus on selling and marketing you concepts; how easy and quickly it is to learn, well... only if you buy their products first. Our vision with Phrasebase, and this is a core philosophical belief across all of our partners, is to focus foremost on actually helping people learn. We will provide free tools, discussion and materials useful to the online self-study group of language learners.

If we eventually introduce fee-based products or services, it will mostly be to cover overhead costs and allow us to provide even more outstanding and unique functionality to our audience serving to greatly improve the effectiveness at which they learn and retain a foreign language. None of us are in it for the money, but we do recognize the greater benefits cashflow will afford us in terms of ability to provide ever greater value.

Everything I do in life involves the creation of win-win situations, I believe the world is infinitely expandable to settling on all-party-win solutions; yourself, your friends, your family, your neighbors, your country, human-kind, plants, animals, the environment, etc... Occasionally you'll meet outstandingly successful people who live their life this way, never compromising or giving into temptations of short term gains. An you'll know it, because when their presence passes you, it'll feel like being in the wake of a slow moving ocean freighter down a narrow canal.
Author: Torsten Daerr