A new app offers a new way to learn another language

Hallo. Hola. Hej. Moi. Bonjour. Салам. Zdravo. Halló. 你好. Didn’t get any of that? No? That’s OK – there’s an app that could help you out if you want to become a postmodern polyglot.

Yet what’s so impressive about this Kiwi-created app is its designers all live far enough away from each other that they telecommute to get work done; in other words, they use technology to create technology.

Lizzie Dunn, Shelley Dunn and Hannah Craig are the people behind Lingogo, an app that works as a free digital bookshop for language learners. Available from the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPad (with a Google Play version in the works) in English-Spanish, Spanish-English, English-French, French-English, English-German and German-English versions, the app provides interactive material via a new ‘Lingogo Story’ that is added to the digital bookshelf each month.

Lingogo creator and director Lizzie Dunn says it’s all about challenging how people traditionally learn languages.

“As Kiwis I think we like to challenge the status quo,” she says.

“The hardest part of learning any language isn’t actually academic. It’s finding fun ways to keep motivated, practise, and use what you’re learning.

What’s equally fascinating is how Lingogo works behind the scenes.

Dunn runs the business behind the app, known as the Little Mouse Co., from her home in Mount Maunganui. Yet Shelley Dunn, her mother, is based in Auckland, while designer Hannah Craig is 18,434 kilometres and 13 time zones away in London.

Oh, and all three women also have full-time jobs in addition to their work on the app.

But Dunn swears the distance between the three of them hasn’t been too much of an issue.

“Like any good Kiwi startup, costs and resources are pretty tight in these beginning stages,” she says.

“I’m the director, but I’m also the receptionist and sound engineer! It's been so great to finally hit the market and the feedback we’ve received from language learners and language schools has been overwhelmingly supportive –we’re already lining up more languages.”


Image: Lingogo creator and director Lizzie Dunn 

Lingogo’s website explains the origins of the app pretty simply:

Shelley used to read hordes of Spanish children’s books and random magazines to help her with her Spanish diploma. One day, with a book for teenagers in one hand and a Spanish dictionary in the other she said to herself ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could do this with stories that I actually find entertaining?’ Then she said ‘Even better - what if those stories were set-up specifically to make dual-language reading easy?’

Lizzie is Shelley’s daughter. She was visiting home and helping herself to the pantry when she overheard her mum’s idea. ‘We can publish that’ she said.

Lizzie rang Hannah, an old flatmate and great friend who had just moved to London. ‘I can design that’ Hannah said.

Little Mouse Co. and the Lingogo app were born.

A small team means the company can be better-positioned to respond to changing tech trends, Dunn says.

“We use a software development company called Mag+ to help us create and maintain our app,” she explains.

“We use NZTC (New Zealand Translation Centre) for our translations. And we use a bunch of freelancers mainly through fiverr.com for voiceovers and design work. The core team is small, and we think it needs to stay small and flexible to ensure we can keep up and adapt to changing technology trends.”

We all have a bit of adventurer in our genes if we’re living in New Zealand, whether that’s from a recent pilgrimage or an ancient one. Each voyager could have chosen to stay put but they were seeking something different and maybe that trickles down. I’m just grateful that I’ve grown up with the freedom to be able to have a crack. - Lizzie Dunn

Aside from her mum and Craig, there’s a whole heap of other people who have been integral to Lingogo’s development and continued evolution, says Dunn, providing everything from serving as a sounding board for ideas to offering moral support.

“My brother Scott helps us with PR, my sister Jess is always flicking me ideas and keeping me on track,” she says.

“My brother James and his German fiancée Katha answer my questions about the German language about ten times a day, while my Brazilian brother-in-law Marcio answers my questions about learning English. My dad is an amazing sounding board and gives me extremely straight up advice from his experience in business. My partner Cam has been like a walking sandwich board for Lingogo since we came up with the name. Then we have Han’s family always cheerleading and we’ve managed to rope in most of our friends to help out along the way with business advice, design, voiceovers and promo. Fair to say it’s been a fairly collective effort!”

Yet even with the support, Dunn says it hasn’t always been smooth sailing in getting things going.

“I definitely wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but it’s been a fantastic adventure,” she explains.

“I guess it’s been hard because the concept of a bookshop app with interactive dual-language stories is pretty new. We’re sitting somewhere between the publishing, design, tech, media and education industries and doing a lot of things for the first time. We’re not too concerned with fitting in though.”

She says having a singular goal has helped provide motivation.

“Our goal is simple: to keep language learners motivated with fun opportunities to practise regularly,” she explains.

“Language learners and teachers get Lingogo immediately and that’s what counts. I guess working with mum and Han has made everything a lot easier than it could have been – they’re so incredibly talented and inspiring. The work is actually bloody fun, and we’ve created something we passionately believe in so that also makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

Another motivation: professional accolades that helped convince Dunn the app had a future, and that the struggles of being a startup could pay off.

“We made the top three for the Bay of Plenty in the ANZ Flying Start Competition in 2014,” Dunn says.

“When we first reached out to language learning institutions I received replies pretty instantly from two of the big players, Mango and busuu, who each have hundreds of millions of users. The interest has continued as we’ve attracted our first advertisers and started getting attention from media. Obviously, I believe Little Mouse Co deserves all these things. I’m putting us up for them and every time I do it to win, but there’s believing in yourself and your product and there’s believing the world is ready for you.”

With plans for Italian, Portuguese and Te Reo, as well as more ‘Lingogo Stories,’ it seems things are chugging along quite nicely for Dunn and her company now. In the process, she says she’s learned a few things that could be of benefit to any startup.

“I reckon you have to really figure out your own strengths and weaknesses and build a team that will complement those,” she says.

I can be quite passionate and emotional, which we’ve needed to get up and going. But mum’s done all this before and knows where you have to be practical and a bit harder – so she’ll tell me to ‘suck it up’ when I just need to get on or over something. Han has all the style I lack, so she’s in charge of setting that bar high. It’s a real weight off when you can admit to yourself that someone else is better at something than you are and just hand it on over.”

Regardless of Lingogo’s future, Dunn says there will be many more startups making their way into the marketplace. That’s because an entrepreneurial spirit, she says, is part of the social fabric of Aotearoa.

“We all have a bit of adventurer in our genes if we’re living in New Zealand, whether that’s from a recent pilgrimage or an ancient one,” she says.

“Each voyager could have chosen to stay put but they were seeking something different and maybe that trickles down. I’m just grateful that I’ve grown up with the freedom to be able to have a crack.”