First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Keith Phillips: Thanks for asking! We’re doing well overall. Our 3 boys are “attending” school virtually, so I’ve been busy coordinating “zoom school” with my wife, Sarah, and leading a startup with my team, so my brain has been spinning a bit lately! But we’re making it all work. That and the fact that the schools (and all of the teachers, administrators, and staff) have really been amazing, totally stepping up during a very challenging time.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded realLINGUA
Keith Phillips: So, after 4 years studying Spanish in high school with traditional grammar/dictionary methods, I still couldn’t say anything remotely comprehensible. And trying to speak to Rosario, the Spanish exchange student from Madrid that was visiting my high school with her classmates, confirmed this with stark clarity. Of course, I definitely knew some Spanish and even how to say some random things (think: «El sol es amarillo.»). But I didn’t know how to speak the language.
My breakthrough came in college when I studied abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. Upon arrival, I still couldn’t speak much – still stumbling over my own words. It was super-late when my new roommate and I finally arrived at our host family’s home after 10+ hours of travel. The host father was a night owl, and so he was very eager to chat us up. My brain was fried, but during our conversation (and in between shots of something or other that he continued to pour!) I kept hearing him say «vale,» which wasn’t something I had run across before. Roughly translated, it means “okay” or even “yeah.” I was so tired I just started saying it after everything he said. And, amazingly, he actually started speaking faster and using more slang with me, like I was another native-speaker.
Then it dawned on me – students from the U.S. that he had met previously never used the word «vale» (it’s actually from the Spanish dialect spoken primarily in Spain – i.e., Castellano). So, my using it increased the conversation’s inherent comfort level and his willingness to continue speaking with me. The next day I decided that I was going to do more of this linguistic mirroring to see if people would treat me more like a native-speaker and use more authentic language at speed with me, a non-native-speaker. After another couple of days, my assumptions were completely validated. I realized that if I said things in the same ways that the locals did, they understood me and conversations got longer and longer, and my language skills got deeper and deeper. To really zero in, I participated in several language exchanges — «intercambios» — with Spanish university students wanting to practice their English.
This strategy I was developing on the fly was exactly what young children do when learning their first language: say what everyone around you is saying and continue building upon it. There were still landlines in Spain back then, so one day, when I called my friend from California who was also studying in Salamanca and living with another Spanish host family, the host mother answered. She and I talked for a bit, I explained who I was, and I asked for Stephanie (all in Spanish). She then took the phone away from her ear and said to my friend (in Spanish, of course!): «Estefanía, ¿conoces a un chico español que se llama ‘Keith’? Hay un chico español en el teléfono que está pidiendo hablar contigo.» “Wow!” I thought to myself, “she actually thinks I’m Spanish!” Follow-up note: it actually took quite a bit of convincing on my friend Stephanie’s part to convince her host mother that I was not Spanish!
My solution worked so well that I went from fumbling around the language to near flawless speaking ability in just 4 weeks. When I got back to the States, I felt a real calling to share this “magical formula” that I had developed with others. So I decided to scale the language-learning solution I came up with and went on to teach French and Spanish for 21+ years at the college level. I felt an even deeper calling several years ago to scale things even further, and I’m now leading a language-learning startup.
So, looking around at the language-learning landscape, we realized that there are many traditional-based options rooted in dictionary/grammar type approaches. We’ve all been there – recite this list of fruit from memory and conjugate these three irregular verbs. And language-learners’ reactions to this? As a former language instructor, I’ve heard it all – daunting, boring, overwhelming, difficult, pointless, etc., etc. I asked many language students over the years what they wanted in a language-learning solution, and the vast majority of them had the same response – authentic language that teaches you how to really speak the language. For me, this was a no-brainer because I knew I already had the solution – the one that I had come up with as a junior in college. I also knew that I wanted to reach as many people as possible with my solution. So, while I enjoyed classroom teaching immensely, I knew I was being called to scale my “founder solved their own problem” to the widest audience possible, and thus realLINGUA was born.
Ours is a truly natural approach that eliminates the need to memorize a dictionary’s worth of vocabulary or regurgitate grammatical rules ad nauseam when learning another language. We deliver immersive foreign language-learning via an innovative patent-pending approach in a self-directed learning app. Rooted in descriptive linguistics and implicit learning, we help people make a quantum leap in their language-learning by exposing them to high-frequency language from actual native-speaker conversations. It’s the language as it’s really used every day – unscripted, in-context, at-speed – making our approach as close to the way humans naturally learn a language as possible! So, while it’s definitely disruptive, it’s really a back to basics approach that seeks to help the learner absorb the language in much the same way we all learned our first language. Very exciting stuff, and I get to do it all with an amazing team – part of the reason I can’t wait to wake up and get to work each day!
How does realLINGUA innovate?
Keith Phillips: While living in France with my family a few years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to learn more about AI’s future from some of the leading minds in the field. I got a vision for what truly empathetic benevolent AI based on flow state learning science could look like and how it could positively impact education and beyond. I knew I wanted to be a part of shaping that exciting future.
Based on my work in both academia and artificial intelligence, I think we’re going to see massive positive gains as education completely transforms due to the use of AI. Many applications and possibilities bring conversational pedagogy, adaptive learning, and intelligent tutoring systems together to create AI that has the actual ability to teach others.
At realLINGUA, we see a huge opportunity to help learners practice their new language skills as they continue to level-up while using our platform. Obviously, one of the best ways to do this is through conversation practice with another speaker. And there are plenty of options out there to do this with a fellow human, but hardly any options at all that leverage the amazing potential of artificial intelligence. That, and we’ve heard from countless learners that 1-on-1 language practice offerings can be fraught with issues.
My team and I were recently awarded a grant to pursue a patent for a conversational AI my company is developing specifically for language-learning. So say bonjour to the future of language-learning, and say adios to all of those creepy tinder-ish “language exchange” apps that feel more like a dating site than language-learning.
Based on an algorithmic cognitive processor I developed and rooted in empathetic benevolence and flow state learning science, our AI will use actual learning ability and gentle corrections to help learners practice their listening and speaking skills as effectively as possible. This more human touch, coupled with actual learning ability, is where conversational AI, and AI in general, is headed. This could become the foreign language teacher of the future. It also has the potential to revolutionize education on a broader scale as well as shape and make history through true benevolent super-intelligence (“smart with a soul”) as we move into the fourth age.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Keith Phillips: So, like businesses everywhere, we’ve really had to tighten the belt during this pandemic. But even before the pandemic, we had survived a couple of missteps that threatened to shutter our burgeoning startup. Those were tough times to go through, but one of the things that we got out of those experiences was the ability to be productive (even super-productive) in the midst of our own austerity measures. And the pandemic has not been easy by any means, but I feel like those previous experiences gave us a real good sense (at least generally speaking) of how to make it through tough times. As a result, we’ve had some recent wins:
- Our team is growing – we went from 3 to 7 in 4 months!
- We got a startup award to pursue an AI patent – rooted in empathetic benevolence and flow science learning principles and based on a cognitive algorithmic processor I developed (Can AI Show Empathy Like A Parent Teaching A Child? realLINGUA Is About To Show Us)
- We’re out of beta, have just launched a full-scale marketing campaign, and have started getting our first customers just ~6 weeks in!! – proof via cash
- We’ve got a small angel backer, and we’re raising a (pre-)seed round to help us get to our next milestones
I have to also give a huge shout out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation for the Save Small Business Fund grant that they awarded us earlier this year. It has helped tremendously during these tough times!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Keith Phillips: Of course, making difficult choices is part of the job description when leading a startup in a competitive space. Honestly, I think that the vast majority of the difficult choices that I’m faced with day in and day out are related to how I spend my time. I read an HBR article a while back that talked about how time is perhaps a CEO’s greatest asset, and spending it as wisely as possible can be what really moves the success needle for a company. I think that’s true.
In my continuous evolution as a leader, I’ve learned two key things related to this. First, you can’t get time back, so forget about the past (to the greatest extent possible) and move on. Moving forward, I think, is the key to growth because the very act of forward movement necessitates action, and action can really make a company (by contrast, the lack of action will almost certainly break a company). Second, take time to invest time in your people, every single day. Now, this may sound like it has to be complicated or even expensive. But, really that’s not true. I’m leading a resource-constrained startup, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for my team. As a quick example, I do my best to respond to team members’ messages as quickly as possible. It’s something I can do to support them in their work for the company, and I honestly think that things like this can reap big dividends.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and realLINGUA in the future?
Keith Phillips: I breathe. Seriously! There’s a lot of stuff out there now about the true importance of breathing in our lives. But it was Pam Grout’s Jumpstart Your Metabolism that convinced me to really give my breath the attention that it truly deserves. And it’s great for stress and anxiety and just staying healthy in general. I think that staying healthy (mentally, physically, spiritually) is one of the biggest things we as entrepreneurs can do to keep ourselves as sharp as possible and prepared for all of the challenges that are constantly thrown at us in startup land. And staying healthy is a controllable factor. By that, I mean that we don’t have to leave our health to chance. We have it (largely) within our power to make the best, most informed decisions possible in this regard – it’s totally in our control.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Keith Phillips: Okay, so I started realLINGUA because I realized that “tried-and-true” language-learning methods – dictionary/grammar approaches – despite being used for centuries, were just not working. My own language-learning experiences revealed this to me, and my language-teaching experiences confirmed that mine was by no means an isolated problem. Nearly everyone I talked to felt the same way. Essentially, my earliest thoughts of starting the company boiled down to disruption, in the most positive sense of the word.
Rosetta Stone, Babbel, Duolingo, and countless others have really just dressed up those old, ineffective language-learning approaches in shiny packaging and overly-gamified apps. From my perspective, their attempts to disrupt in language-learning have indeed been successful (in some senses of the word), but not really all that helpful to the learner. Their efforts have been certainly disruptive, to be sure, but not actually very positive from a learning perspective. In essence, their disruptions don’t actually solve real problems or alleviate actual pain. They just disrupted – but they weren’t positive disruptions. And that’s exactly when being positively disruptive is a very good thing because you’re helping to solve a real problem and alleviate a lot of pain for many people.
That’s really what entrepreneurs are out to do – be disruptively helpful, in the best sense of the term. Language-learning is stuck with tired, old approaches that are overwhelming and ineffective. realLINGUA’s being disruptive with a fresh approach based on natural language-learning is a very positive thing in this case.
Your final thoughts?
Keith Phillips: “This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…” -Sir Winston Churchill