While I was teaching English to kids in Russia and Italy in 2014, parents often asked me 'what can I do with my younger child?'. They wanted their younger children to begin English at home, before arriving in the classroom at age 6 or 7, like their siblings.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, I could see how difficult English was for these 6 and 7 year olds. Learning a new language, from the beginning, in a group of 20 or 30 is difficult, especially if you only have two lessons each week. Despite all my energy, I could see that the children I was teaching were struggling, because they were missing a foundation in the language that they could have gained in their younger years.
I went back to Oxford, where I was studying Modern Languages. Researching language acquisition, I read more about how the brains of infants work - how easily children acquire new languages in their early childhood, and how much harder it becomes over time. I learned that 'language confusion', a theory that was popular in the 1980s, has been discredited. Children's brains are amazingly powerful, and don't get confused by the addition of new languages!
Our spongy brains in early childhood can absorb new languages easily (even if we aren't constantly immersed in them - although this of course does help), and it gets much more difficult as we pass six years old.
Our brains literally begin 'cutting away' synaptic pathways that aren't in use as we reach six years old. We need lots of synapses to learn new languages, and these begin to be cut away as we grow older, making it much harder to learn second or third languages.
I love teaching and learning languages, and so, when I left Oxford, I teamed up with my co-founder Adit, a Computer Scientist from UCL. Born into a non-native English speaking family, Adit understood the problem well himself! We began working on prototypes and ideas to begin introducing English to children, playfully, from the earliest years.
Our first product was a toy that combined with a series of games on a tablet. Our first prototypes were made from paper and sellotape in my parents' kitchen, and we tested them on the floor of kindergartens around London. We saw how much fun children were having from the beginning: they began confidently repeating, and remembering, words in new languages like Chinese, which we were using to test the idea.
We quickly began selling our very first versions to parents from the kindergartens. We wanted to prove that parents valued the toy enough to buy it, even if it was made from paper!
Back then, and now, we keep our prices low: our mission is, and always has been, to reduce the cost, and increase the efficacy, of starting English.
In October 2016, after 11 months of research and development, we launched our toy in Germany. Our first few hundred users loved playing and learning with Lingumi, but were finishing all the games so fast, that we couldn't keep up with making new ones.
In early 2017, we launched a subscription for Lingumi. By asking families to pay us each month instead of once, it helped us reduce the upfront cost of Lingumi, but also to keep making new games and lessons for families who were playing regularly.
Back then, and now, over 60% of families were playing lessons in our app two or more times a week - so we adapted to keep up with the demand for new lessons.
In July of 2017, we made the decision to make 'tapping' the main interaction with our app, instead of our toy, to help us increase the number of games and speed of development. We ran a short study with the University of Plymouth in the UK, and found no significant learning difference between using the cubes (our toy), and using tapping. The lessons were equally effective and interactive in both cases.
What we did show in the study, was that families where the parent participated in the learning experience, sitting with their child and repeating words together, had much higher learning outcomes.
We also reduced our prices In December 2017, we began opening access to Lingumi in more countries. We now have customers in over 50 countries! We kept our prices low: our philosophy on pricing is that one month of using Lingumi should cost less than 1/3 of the cost of a single English lesson. For families who pay for a yearly subscription, that means a year of learning with Lingumi costs less than 4 private English classes - we think that's pretty good value. In 2018, we've worked hard for our Lingumi families, and are welcoming new families all the time. We've added an inbox in the app, so you can talk to our team of experts, in your language, at any time. And we've extended our curriculum from 70 lessons, to over 200, with more games being released every two weeks. We've grown from 2 people to 10 people, and are adding a couple of new faces soon.