Can Harry Potter teach English? Papagei thinks so

Using technology to learn languages is nothing new — people were using records for it a century ago. But these days it’s the web’s turn: and one startup is trying to make a difference by using blockbuster entertainment as the basis, which uses subtitled online video to teach tongues, has just picked up a wad of funding from one of Germany’s richest people: financial services magnate Carsten Maschmeyer. Papagei (that’s “parrot” auf Deutsch) is based in Hannover and offers an immersion system called ‘3i-Learning’, which involves showing a video in the language being taught, with subtitles in the learner’s native language. The idea is that the learner stops consciously looking at the subtitles and starts reading them subconsciously, helping them to internalize their new language.

It may not seem like the most original idea — operations such as Yabla do something similar, and there are many such videos on YouTube (s GOOG) — but Papagei puts a strong emphasis on the way it combines education with entertainment. The videos it uses range from current news clips to blockbuster movies, and Papagei has content partnerships with the likes of Warner Bros (s TWX), Reuters (s TRI) and the BBC.

That means getting to use films such as V for Vendetta and Harry Potter as educational tools.

The company launched earlier this month with services for desktop, tablet and mobile — along with the status of being the ‘official language trainer’ for Germany’s Olympic team. Now Maschmeyer has put an undisclosed “two-digit million” amount into it.

“Attending language classes is time-consuming, expensive and often also boring, because you cannot choose the content for yourself – which is not appropriate in modern times,” Maschmeyer said. “With, languages can be learnt in a straightforward, interactive and individual way, according to your field of interest, for example while watching hip movies.”

Right now, the service only has a few language pairings: it can be used by German-speakers learning English, and Russian- and Turkish-speakers learning German. However, more language options such as Spanish and French are apparently coming later this year.

That’s not all the investment will be used for. Maschmeyer’s money will also help the company expand into video tutoring for schools and companies, buy other companies, make more content deals and work on its apps. Papagei’s also planning expansion next year into the countries whose languages it teaches.

As it happens, Germany also has another thriving online language-learning startup called Babbel, which recently rolled out its own mobile apps and has its targets firmly set on the U.S. market (where it faces rivals such as Livemocha and Busuu). Babbel takes a very different approach, much more like Rosetta Stone’s interactive take than Papagei’s video-based immersion.

Babbel MD Markus Witte sounded quite complimentary about Papagei when I spoke to him about it, saying he was impressed with the range of content deals it had. But then again, he sees Papagei as a complementary service rather than a direct rival.

“It’s a very interesting approach as a supplementary learning tool to others,” Witte said. “From what we see, we have a lot of absolute beginners because in a bilingual interactive program it’s very easy to start. Anything that’s got to do with natural language needs a little more proficiency, but once you are there, then you usually need several different learning tools. Using movies is a matter of taste and proficiency level, but I think it’s something.”