By Tess Postema
From language professor to tech company founder
If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, a persistent challenge quickly emerges: How to apply what you learn in the classroom – from conjugation exercises to endless vocabulary lists – to real-life conversations. Any level of fluency seems impossible without intense immersion, either from living abroad or engaging in constant and routine interactions with native speakers.
This problem is not a novel one. But it is one that technology, in the age of Google Translate, doesn’t seem to have a shortcut to – yet.
Keith Phillips, CEO and founder of the language-learning software startup realLINGUA, is looking to change that. Not by attempting to replace traditional classroom learning wholesale, but by providing practical, accessible lessons to build organically on its stilted foundation. Or, as Phillips puts it, “to teach language the way humans were made to learn language.”
Phillips conceived of realLINGUA as a result of his tenure as a college professor of modern languages. In class after class, he keep hearing the same feedback from students: in practice, when they attempted to speak and understand the language in a foreign country, it wasn’t working. In 2016, Phillips left teaching to focus full-time on the startup. In July 2017, realLINGUA moved into Ann Arbor SPARK’s East Incubator in Ypsilanti, and was awarded a business accelerator grant by SPARK the following month.
The perfect match
With an academic background in education and the humanities, Phillips didn’t tread the expected STEM-heavy startup path. Despite this, and despite not having “a huge network in Ann Arbor…I knew it was a hub for tech startups,” states Phillips. “People [within the ecosystem] really make the time to meet with you and help build your network.”
It should come as no surprise that entrepreneurs and startups — spanning from niche mobility applications, to biomedical devices, to realLINGUA — have congregated in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. The region encompasses the heart of not only the auto industry but the State’s own research triangle, the University Research Corridor (URC), made up of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University.
With both a public research enterprise and an undergraduate entrepreneurship program ranked first in the world, U-M both generates and attracts startups – and the students with the skill set and appetite to work in that environment.
Phillips tapped this talent pipeline at a discount last summer through another unique Michigan resource, the Michigan Corporate Relations Network (MCRN) Small Company Internship Award (SCIA) program at U-M, funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and administered by the Business Engagement Center.
Through SCIA, Phillips hired Laura Grey, a graduate student at U-M’s School of Information in UX Design, for effectively half-price. SCIA funds half of a student’s internship salary, up to $3,500, at qualified small MI companies.
“I loved working with realLINGUA,” Laura says. “The experience of working for a startup is pretty intense, and I have a passion for language learning, which drove me to do my best work.”
With Laura’s help, the realLINGUA team was able to successfully soft-launch and test one of its first products, realFRENCH, and begin to acquire customers. Laura was initially hired to focus on UX Design, but ended up wearing many hats, advising the marketing and developer teams as well.
“I would love to build up realLINGUA in the future with a lot of ‘Lauras,’” states Phillips. “She really was instrumental in helping us move from concept to user testing, at a point in time where the company was in a tight spot.”
Small babel fish in a big pond?
So what sets realLINGUA apart from its global competitors, like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, in the digital language learning space?
With realLINGUA, Phillips is hoping to target a niche customer base: focusing on language learners that have previously studied a foreign language with little-to-no success in speaking said language. Larger language acquisition apps market themselves to complete novices, advanced learners, and everything in between, Phillips states, and “are built on different success models – ones that are structured to keep a certain percentage of learners coming back,” regardless of actual language acquisition progress.
Conversely, realLINGUA’s goal is “not to make you fluent, per se, but to make you more fluent than when you started,” explains Phillips. The app serves as a springboard to get learners to absorb language quickly, anchored by interactive listening exercises comprised of short conversations between native speakers.
This natural language approach scaffolds itself on the principle that there’s no better way to learn a new language than in the manner you learned your first – from actual native-speakers, like your family. Free of sterilized grammar, rote memorization, and scrubbed accents. “The ideal language teacher is somewhere between your best friend and your mom,” Phillips summarizes. Or perhaps a more talkative Siri. realLINGUA currently has a language-learning chatbot, Anika, specifically tailored to the company’s ‘curated immersion’ approach, in development.
With realLINGUA’s immediate focus on raising a seed round of funding and testing on a wider user pool, don’t expect a nuanced, ESL version of Alexa anytime soon. But, just like language itself, realLINGUA appears poised to keep evolving.