I’ve been researching the rise of online education for a project I’m working on. One of the companies in this growing field has a name that fits nicely into this week’s Life-or-Death theme: Livemocha.
Livemocha was founded in 2007 to bring language learning to a global audience. It currently offers courses in 38 languages, including Arabic, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Indonesian, Hebrew, and Turkish. Fees start at about $10 per course; students come from “every country in the world.” The website is elegantly designed, informative, and welcoming.
I originally encountered the Livemocha name out of context, and nothing about it suggested “education” or “language learning” to me. I was uncertain about the pronunciation: did “live” have a short vowel (suggesting an imperative verb) or a long one (suggesting “alive”)? Was “mocha” pronounced with a /k/ in the middle, like the color/coffee drink/city in Yemen; or phonetically, as in “cha-cha-cha”?
So I emailed the company to get the name story. The gracious reply came from Kira Fickensher, Livemocha’s community manager:
Livemocha is 2 parts: Live and Mocha. Live is pronounced lahyv as in “live broadcast” (the adverb/adjective form of the word). It represents live learning, live conversation, live practice - everything language learning should be. Self-study and online learning are such an essential evolution for language learning, because they are far more accessible and practical than traditional methods. But these need not exclude human interaction and immersion. Our approach of using social networking to reduce the barriers of distance actually bring [sic] live practice and immediate feedback into the act of self-study.
The second part of Livemocha is mocha, pronounced like the coffee drink. This is both a nod to our hometown of Seattle, which is known for its coffee culture, and a way of incorporating the ambience and sentiment of a coffee shop, where you can both study by yourself with a laptop or chat with a friend.
I’m glad the company gave this much thought to the name story; too many businesses with puzzling names default to “It’s just a name” or “It’s something our PR agency dreamed up.” And I’m happy to see those positive associations: “live learning” plus “sociable setting.”
But I’m a native English speaker. I wonder how well those meanings translate to a native speaker of, say, Mandarin Chinese (one of the top 10 languages spoken by Livemocha members). The pronunciation isn’t transparent, either: The short I, the ambiguous CH, and the V—pronounced B or W in various languages—could be confounding. Would a native Spanish speaker with no knowledge of English pronunciation be tempted to pronounce the name Lee-bay-MO-tcha?
Then there’s the leap required to get from “Livemocha” to “language learning.” The tagline—“Creating a World without Barriers”—is of only limited help: It could apply to a concert (think Live Aid or LiveNation), an international philanthropy (think Doctors without Borders), or a campaign for wheelchair access. I’m not saying the name and tagline need to be descriptive or pedestrian, but they should provide a clue about what’s being offered here.
My grade for the Livemocha name: B-minus. It’s distinctive and evocative if you speak English, and easy enough to pronounce once you see the word split. (The cursive treatment of the logo makes it a little clearer; an intercap M or a space between the words would be even better.) But it’s an oddly challenging choice for a global brand that focuses on cross-border fluency. It makes me wonder about the thoroughness of the pre-launch linguistic screening.