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The canny Swedish linguists taking language 'intercambios' online

A new online service allows Spanish and English students to practice their skills

Spain is one of the few European countries where having an acceptable level of English still represents a significant added value on the job market. People know this, and despite the economic crisis (or better yet, because of it), demand for English lessons is on the rise. The business of teaching English - a guaranteed success in a country where people still struggle to express themselves in the world's lingua franca - is experiencing a new boom.

This is the backdrop for an initiative that originated in Silicon Valley, California, and could really catch on in Spain: the website called Verbling.com, which allows users to converse in English with native speakers - basically to enjoy an intercambio online. The service is free, but it is time-consuming. It is based on the time-honored system of barter, which means that the English speaker we are chatting with is not a good Samaritan, but rather someone who wants to learn Spanish in turn. So after conversing in English, both users will spend the same amount of time talking in Spanish.

Verbling is designed to be an online platform for people all over the world who want to learn English or Spanish, by creating the right setting to bring people together in a mutually beneficial relationship. The conversations take place in real time, require no downloads, and have moderators who establish schedules, suggest topics of conversation and act as arbiters, checking that for every five minutes of conversation in English there are another five minutes of conversation in Spanish. Or at first, at least. Afterwards, couples may establish their own rules.

The idea for Verbling.com came from two young Swedes, Jacob Jolis, 20, and Mikael Bernstein, 24, who are both studying at Stanford University in California. After finding an associate, Fred Wulff, a 26-year-old software expert who was working at Google, they convinced the same investors who launched Facebook to provide funding for their project. The virtual platform went live this month, and the founders are currently working on software to measure users' linguistic evolution.

Their goal, they say, is not to replace traditional English classes, since doing the groundwork - learning grammar and vocabulary - is unavoidable. But the website is a friendly, inexpensive complement to that work. All that is necessary is a computer and broadband internet access.

If it works, it could become an especially attractive solution in Spain, where demand for English lessons is greater than in practically any other country in the world. An indication of this is the fact that Spain is the largest European market for Oxford University Press' English-learning books. Also, Spain is one of the greatest sources of revenue for Cambridge ESOL, a unit of Cambridge University that offers examinations and English diplomas for non-native speakers. And there's more: six years ago, the Spanish Federation of Language Teaching Centers (FECEI) figured there were around 3,500 private English schools in Spain; these days there are around 4,500. And everything suggests that there will be more in the future, says Richard Johnson, president of FECEI and founder of the English Language Institute in Seville.

Johnson says that in the more than 30 years that he's been living in Spain, English has gone from being considered a luxury, or a symbol of social status, to being viewed as a necessary skill. "To more and more people, English has become indispensable," he says. Johnson explains that a growing number of parents consider it an economic priority to enroll their children in English classes from the age of three or four. "They see it as life insurance."

A newer trend is the increase in young adults who pay for private lessons to improve their chances of being accepted in college or to be more competitive on the job market. Jacob Jolis has noticed the same trend among Verbling users in Latin America. "For many of them, the goal is purely economic," he notes.