When I arranged to interview the CEO of an award-winning language learning app used worldwide by millions and millions of people, I didn't know what to expect.
Turns out Romanian-born Alex Iliescu, Mondly's CEO and co-founder, is not just a successful entrepreneur in the EdTech space, he is also a cool guy, one who was willing to share very personal stories from his life to greatly enrich the interview.
I worked out a 90% discount on Mondly's lifetime membership for Free Language fans. That's $99 instead of $999 for permanent access to 33 languages and counting!
I realized from the get go - we chatted a while before hitting record - just how much this project means to Alex and his team. His dedication goes well beyond simply running a language education app, and I'm certain this is reflected in his entire team of 30 full-time employees (not to mention the other 180+ voice artists that provide native tongues for Mondly users to mimic).
Alex's heart is in his work. He is passionate, experienced and openly competitive. Combine that with gumption to take on big challenges and you have a man with the wherewithal to captain a ship upwind into bleeding edge LangEd territory and accomplish things like being the first to integrate chatbots with speech recognition into a language learning app as well as the first to launch both VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) language learning experiences with speech recognition and chatbot technology. Impressive!
Thus it is with great pleasure and a big smile that I give you the 15th Free Language Podcast episode. I'm sure you'll enjoy Alex's personal stories as well as the lowdown on how Mondly came to be... and where it's headed.
What is Mondly?
Mondly is a freemium app for iOS, Android and Web which has been downloaded in over 190 countries by 30+ million people. It is the foundation that built Mondly's raging worldwide success.
The app launches you into an immersive learning experience right from the get-go. In the words of the CEO himself:
The idea behind Mondly is it's really easy to get in. It only takes ten seconds. You download the app, you hit start and you're actually hearing and seeing and even speaking the language.
What sets Mondly apart from other language learning apps?
There are many aspects of Mondly that set it apart from other apps. Here is just a handful of features that make Mondly stand (way) out amongst the crowd:
- Mondly's AI chatbot with voice recognition in 33 languages
- The ability to learn any of 33 languages from any of those 33 languages (not just from English, for example)
- VR and AR learning experiences for iOS and Android plus Oculus Rift
- fresh new lesson content for each language daily
Play your way to fluency in 33 languages
Mondly is a revolutionary way to learn languages right from the comfort of your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop. It takes you on a gamified language journey designed around real-life situations like ordering food in a restaurant, dealing with emergencies and going on vacation - to name just a few.
Mondly covers beginner, intermediate and advanced proficiency levels, sports an easy-to-use customizable dashboard plus world class multilingual speech recognition technology. Mondly allows you to synchronize your language learning between all devices (iOS, Android and Web).
I worked out a 90% discount on Mondly's lifetime membership for Free Language fans. That's $99 instead of $999 for permanent access to 33 languages and counting!
Focus on useful phrases rather than individual words
Mondly takes you beyond learning vocabulary by focusing your learning time on high-frequency phrases that are immediately useful in real life.
Learn by listening to native speakers
Mondly works with professional native voice actors to provide you with authentic pronunciations and natural accents.
Practice real conversations
The Mondly method aims to get you immersed in the language learning process within seconds using chatbots, AR and VR, thereby removing the stress of speaking with actual people until you're already comfortable conversing.
This single feature is key in overcoming the fear of speaking a foreign language before you dive in head first with natives - great for folks who are nervous about speaking Afrikaans and want to get practice in a nearly-real-life way without the extra stress of being on the spot.
Retain more using a unique spaced repetition system
Mondly's technology uses tested and effective intervals for repetition to help you acquire language fluency not only quickly but permanently.
Enjoy shiny new lessons daily
The Mondly team works tirelessly to provide 30+ million active and ecstatic learners with new lessons for each of 33 languages every single day!
Language learning categories and lessons
Instead of having a linear approach to language learning, Mondly is highly-customizable and allows you to select topics that are of immediate interest or need to you rather than having to muck through a bunch of stuff you will likely never use.
Depending on your needs, you can select and choose from a wide variety of categories to get started learning. These general categories include:
- Family, Country & Languages
- Vacation Activities
- Public Transportation
- Seasons & Weather
- Core Vocabulary
- Preparing a Trip
- City Tour
- Colors & Numbers
- Fruits & Food
- Parts of the Body
- Many more topics...
Your own language learning statistics and leaderboard
Often when learning languages, we forget just how much we have progressed and this can lead to frustration and potential abandonment of The Language Dream. With Mondly, this is unlikely to happen! Their interface includes a nifty statistics section to keep you informed of exactly what you've learned and how much progress you are making.
In addition, you can challenge yourself to level up with other Mondly learners using the leaderboard - this can be an excellent source of motivation and provides a way for you to measure yourself up to others learning languages all around the world. Who knows, you could be the next #1 spot on the leaderboard!
The coolest bonus with Mondly
If you're like me and your language learning goals go beyond just learning one foreign language, Mondly is a top choice as they offer a single affordable price that gives you access to all 33 available languages.
This means if you go ahead and subscribe to Mondly now, you will immediately get access to dozens of other languages as well!
Not only that, the ability to select both the language you want to learn in and the target language you are learning allows you to create custom combinations that fit your specific needs. If you're not a native English speaker, this could be just the thing you've been looking for, as you can choose to learn a language from your native language rather than learning from English - and considerably improve the results you get from the time you spend playing your way to fluency.
In case you're curious, this nifty feature allows for an astounding 1056 language course combinations in one product!
Mondly is changing the way millions of people learn languages!
- 33 languages available
- 500,000+ reviews on the App Store and Google Play with 4.7/5 rating
- 2017 Facebook app of the year in Europe, The Middle East and Africa
- Best New App in the App Store in January 2016
- MondlyVR is the first Virtual Reality language learning app with speech recognition in the world
- MondlyAR is the first Augmented Reality language learning app with speech recognition in the world
- MondlyKIDS was selected as "Editor's Choice" on Google Play in late-2017
I worked out a 90% discount on Mondly's lifetime membership for Free Language fans. That's $99 instead of $999 for permanent access to 33 languages and counting!
Transcription of this interview
If you prefer to read, I've got you covered here (though my fingers get a bit numb from typing these out and my head remains in slow motion for a while from listening to it slow enough for me to type!). Just keep in mind it's a transcription and doesn't always read well. I have left out some unnecessary things to clean it up a bit. Please consider listening as so many nuances come through in the recording that cannot be transcribed. That said, here you go!
Chapman: Alright, I'm here today with Alex Iliescu from Mondly, very excited to have him on board, he's the CEO. How are you doing today Alex?
Alex: Hi Chapman, actually I'm doing pretty well, I'm happy, the weekend is almost starting and I'm about to have an interview with you so thanks for inviting me.
Chapman: Cool, well I'm really happy to have you on the show. You guys are up to a lot of interesting things over there with integrating the best of technology with language learning so I'm excited to hear about some of this stuff.
Before we dive into the Mondly project, I'd like to get a little about you and your story with languages, how you got into language learning.
Alex: Okay sure, well, it goes back like thirty years ago. I was lucky that my parents gave me private lessons when I was eight years old. Our school, you would only start learning languages when you were eleven, so I got a few years of extra school with a really great teacher, really great language teacher, English teacher.
So that was the first time I started learning English. And then a few years later, I started learning French in school and then I tried some private lessons to get be even better. I was quite competitive. I wanted to be the first in the class and I managed to do that almost every year.
And my parents kind of saw that and they encouraged me to learn and they offered me these lessons and I actually even had German lessons, this is new, I don't think I ever told this in any interview, with a war veteran who learned Russian and he taught German in WWII. So he was like eighty-five years old twenty years ago. He was quite a character and I learned many other things besides German from him.
So it goes back to the time in school but what's maybe a bit more related to we're doing today started about ten years ago when I got some assignment with my company to work in different countries. I remember eleven years ago, I started an assignment in Czech Republic and Czech, you know, I speak Romanian and if you hear Spanish or Portuguese or even French they kind of sound familiar. If you know English, then German kind of sounds familiar. But Czech was the first language I heard all around me that would sound like Chinese.
Chapman: Yep, I can agree with you on that, I live in the Czech Republic so I understand completely what you mean. My first time here was kind of like you say, just strange noises everywhere and nothing I could connect it to because I'd never studied another Slavic language.
Alex: Yeah, exactly, that's interesting that we've got this in common. Where did you live?
Chapman: I live down in the south, it's near Ceske Budejovice, it's close to the border with Austria down in the south, it's a beautiful area here.
Alex: Yeah, I think I went there once, they have some castles, well, they have castles everywhere! It is beautiful, is it close to Plzen ?
Chapman: Yeah, it's not so far away, Plzen is a little bit west from here. And you were living in Prague?
Alex: I was living actually in Brno for almost a year. Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic and IBN had a huge IT center. It was a lot of fun. I also lived for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, in Prague.
So yeah, I was quite connected and quite in love with the Czech Republic. Czechia now!
Alex: So you know I was working, I was having fun but I would also try to - at some point - understand and connect with people around me and try to get the basics, learn the basics in Czech. And because I was busy enough, I would try all these other methods, I didn't want to go to class, I'd had enough school. I wanted to kind of learn in my free time, all my unproductive time.
So I tried MP3s, I tried software like Rosetta Stone which was the biggest available at that time and I tried reading some books, I would try all the practical stuff, the practical things, not the two years or five years to learn a language but how can you learn a language in a month, or at least the basics.
Alex: Then I repeated that experience a year later when I got an assignment in the Netherlands. If you know Dutch, it sounds like English and German but again they have some really strange sounds and it was kind of the same feeling like, "Okay, here's another weird language".
At the time I had one hour everyday driving and they had these CDs that were half an hour per lessons. It was always conversational. I don't know if you're acquainted with Pimsleur.
Chapman: Yes, definitely.
Alex: It's pretty good. After that I started to study the teacher and his history and reading his book. So that was then, at that point ten years ago I didn't think of opening a business. I was working for a big company and traveling and enjoying life and trying to connect with people, and seeing the benefits - that was the best. I could see if you know the language, if you could actually speak a few languages, you could so easily connect. Especially in Belgium and Netherlands, everybody speaks English and French and German, it was so easy to find common ground and just have fun doing it.
So that was the history before Mondly.
Chapman: Okay, yeah, and I was going to ask, before we get into what Mondly actually is, what's the kind of origin story about how you came up with idea and took it from zero to thirty million users?
Alex: Yeah sure, so when I came back from my assignments, I came back to Romania to Bucharest, I came back to my job but something was missing. I was missing that traveling and meeting all these people from all these countries. So I stayed there for one or two more years, but I started to really feel like I needed a new challenge, that the prospects were not so good to return to work somewhere in Western Europe, so I started to get bored with my job and I was looking to do more.
But one more thing that happened, really interesting, when I was in the Netherlands, that's when I got my first iPhone. It was 2009 and I was blown away by the things you could do with an iPhone. I was away from home but this iPhone gave me the chance to stream a concert, send pictures, have a Skype call and that I could do not just from home when you're tethered but I could do it from everywhere. They had a really great connection at that time, Internet connection.
So I started to use the iPhone for everything and then I started to hack the iPhone and do more things than you could do with the app store. I was kind of crazy, I even had one of my mentors from work, he said "You're doing fine here with you're life but you're obsessed with the iPhone, you should work with Apple."
He was almost like a father to me at that time, in the job context he was my mentor. He said, "I tell you this like to my own child: you should do something with Apple."
But that was very far from becoming reality because Apple didn't have any center in Romania. They don't really have many centers in Europe, actually, but especially not in Eastern Europe. So there was no chance I could apply for Apple or anything when I came back home and - for a year or two - I kind of left that thought and I enjoyed my iPhone.
Then in 2012 my brother got an iPhone and he's like "Wow, this really is a good phone, this is really pretty awesome. Why don't we do apps?"
Meet my brother who is the co-founder and COO, he's kind of running the whole thing. So when he said, "Why don't we do apps?", I said, "Yeah, let's do apps!"
So it took us just a few weeks to get a Mac and start building really simple apps. That's how it happened, I was in love with it for quite a lot of time and then when he saw the potential and told me, "Yeah, let's do it!" it was like, "Okay, this is it, let's do it!"
Chapman: So I guess the iPhone app and phone technology has come a long way since then. That's a good segue into the many faces that Mondly has. There's the Mondly app, the original and still going strong Mondly app. Then there's the Mondly VR which is the virtual reality experience. Then there's the AR just released this year, augmented reality. There's also one for kids. I guess just to start off with the original app itself, if you could talk a bit about how it works and what makes it so unique?
Alex: What I would say is between 2012 and the beginning of 2014, almost two years of building apps, before building Mondly.
Alex: Yeah, so actually we were always trying education with fun. So that's kind of our thing, we like to study but we also like to have fun, play sports, be competitive, all that. So that was the closest to what we like to do, let's make people learn something but make it fun so they really stick with it.
So we did quite a lot of apps in these two years, we tried quizzes and then from quizzes we went to simple language learning apps. We even tried an app that would redefine the Facebook feed, it would connect to Facebook, redefine the feed and show you the most relevant photos, but usually just photos of friends. So it was a concept, it looks a lot like Instagram now.
Chapman: Well, that was a brilliant idea then!
Alex: Even the design and having the raw photos on top of the screen, Facebook didn't have that five years ago, we had that. So it was fun but it was not the right business model and that was probably not the right industry to go in with no funds and not a big team and no support. So after a few months we had some success with it but it wasn't sustainable, so we went back to doing more educational apps.
Chapman: And they weren't all language education, they were just general?
Alex: From general we realized language has a dimension that I would love the idea of teaching more languages to more people. So instead of having a quiz that's maybe tailored to English speakers or something like that, with languages we could address more countries and those countries could learn more languages. So it made sense. It made business sense. We found a way to make this work really well.
I'll get to that in a moment, but we do serve 33 languages and you can learn any language from 33 languages and that's something unique if you compare us with the other people on the market.
So in the first year and a half, we built a team of probably fifteen people with the right composition, developers, marketer, copywriter, designers, so we covered everything to create a really good product.
In the end of 2013 we said we would be a really great app. We looked at everything that was available on the market and I liked what I saw, I liked studying from Rosetta Stone, I liked the idea of making it fun, but we saw some gaps. The biggest language learning product on the market had computer-generated voices and they were really bad at that time. I said, "You can't have a hundred million people learn a language without hearing a native person speaking!"
That's why I thought we could make something better than what was available on the market. There were a few things that felt like we could bring something better.
That was it, we said, let's do it, let's create something big and that's the best language learning on the market, and this is how Mondly was born. Many months we spent thinking of a name, the name was not easy because we tried to create a name that says something world languages, but that can be more than just this is a language learning app and that's all it will ever be.
So if you're going to ask me "What does Mondly mean?" it comes from "monde" which is "world" and then we brought "monde" and "worldly" together into someone who is a person of the world who knows things.
So meet Mondly!
Chapman: That's great. I love naming things myself, I could see how it could be a long dragged out process!
Then not only that, but once you do have the name you have to make sure the dot com is available.
Alex: Oh yeah, it was not available at that time. But we finally got it less than a year ago.
Chapman: Cool, wow.
Alex: It was a battle, it was not easy but we got it.
So you were saying, I don't know maybe I lost a bit track of...
Chapman: I was just going to say, that was brilliant, you actually answered two of the questions I had already so I guess if you could give a general idea for folks who have never used Mondly, how the app works and what does make it so unique.
Alex: Okay, sure. Well, the idea behind Mondly is it's really easy to get in. It only takes ten seconds. You download the app, you hit start and you're actually hearing and seeing and even speaking the language. The idea is to be the opposite of a book where the first chapter is about the characteristics of the language. We said people should be able to speak a bit of the language while flying in the plane to that country. You're in the plane and you've got two hours until you're in Istanbul or Ibiza, and you're going to use those hours and when you land you're going to be able to say, "Hello, my name is this." "Where's the bus station?" "Oh, thank you!" "Toilets, please?" "I would like a glass of wine."
That's the idea behind Mondly, you can do that while flying to the country you're going to visit.
And how we do that, we use the magic of the smartphone. I'd say the iPhone but now all the smartphones are great. And we use speech recognition which is something that's really new. If you think about it in terms of years, 5 years or 10 years ago this was not available even if you had a billion dollars. And now it's available in your pocket! You have a teacher who will correct you every time. 24/7 you've got a teach who is going to correct your pronunciation. To me, that is amazing. Just that is amazing. The rest of the things are great, too, but this is pretty amazing.
Then you've got all these methods of making it fun. Like you get points, you're being encouraged every step of the way, you're basically starting to learn words, you're seeing how it's written, you're seeing the pictures, you're hearing the words and then at some point you're being prompted to repeat after the speaker.
That's kind of how the lessons work. From words you get to sentences, from sentences you get to conversation. All that you can do in one hour. That's the idea behind Mondly. I hope I'm answering your question.
Chapman: Absolutely! So that's the original Mondly app which is still going strong and more recently you've really pushed the envelope to be the first, to do two big firsts in the language learning world. One was the virtual reality with speech recognition and the second was the augmented reality experience which was only just launched earlier this year 2018.
I'd love it of you could just speak a bit I guess about, first, how you've leveraged VR to enhance language learning, how have you incorporated VR into language learning?
Alex: Chapman, before I get to this, there's something that made this happen and that's the chatbot. So before launching VR in 2016, we launched the first chatbot with speech recognition in 30 languages. We were a few months before the other guys, but ours the idea was that with the app you can learn words and sentences and even kind of practice conversations, but we wanted to give it an even more realistic dimension. We wanted to give people the possibility to practice a conversation with these virtual, let's say, friends, I don't know. It's not really a teacher, it can really be, it's more like role playing. So you'd be able to practice this using speech recognition but also getting feedback, instant feedback, and also getting suggestions about what you could day.
Let's say you want to practice ordering food in a restaurant, you just hit start and this waitress will start engaging you in a conversation. The advantage, because you had that, I mean you could just do that with native speakers, but we saw that many people, most people, they are at the point where they could actually speak the language but they are kind of shy in really connecting to someone and starting to speak.
Alex: So we wanted to kind of bridge the gap there where you are able to do it but you're not really confident to do it.
Chapman: Yeah, you get a playground in which to practice and get comfortable before you actually engage. That's really cool, it takes a lot of the pressure off.
Alex: Exactly. And there's no risk of pissing anyone off, you could do it all day long, this is going to work and answer you and give you feedback 24/7. Again, I still feel like this is the best thing ever.
So that's why after launching the chatbot, when we saw VR something like two years ago, I was blown away. So when I had my first time, you feel it in your stomach, there's this feeling of you're there and you're nauseous and you feel the emotion, you get scared or whatever is on the display is so much more real. It really gets inside you.
It took us probably one month before saying, "Well if this is so immersive, if this makes you feel that you're there, what if we create an experience where you're actually learning a language in VR?"
To give you that feeling that you're in Spain with a waitress or with a controller or a friend, you hear the sounds, you see the environment and someone is speaking with you in that language.
We thought that this would trigger more senses and it would make you remember better, or at least prepare you because it's so similar to reality, it would prepare you to perform when you're actually in that country in that situation.
That was the idea, we said, "Let's do it!" We didn't have a team, we actually started... well, who had a team in VR two years ago? Not many, right?
Chapman: Indeed, bleeding edge.
Alex: Right. We had some young but really passionate developers so one of them, I said, "Do you want to try playing with this?" and he said, "Yeah, I want to do that!"
It took him about three months, it's really funny, the first two months the idea was to connect the chatbot with a 3D environment and in the first two months he would spend his time speaking to a Tic Tac. So he had this endless green plane and instead of a person - because we didn't have any 3D models, nothing - he created a huge Tic Tac two meters tall and that was his partner.
Then when things started to work we said, "Now we need to grow the team and find some 3D artists and some people who can build models and build 3D environments." We started shopping and we were really lucky to find a team that used to be a big team working for Hollywood actually, doing some 3D movies and they were also working on a project for Oculus Rift, they were a bit ahead of the time. The problem was they ran out of money so the whole team kind of disassembled.
So I found some of them working in different programming jobs, not really enjoying them, we want to do VR, you want to do VR, you want to come with us?
He said, "That's what I want to do, I want to do VR and only that."
I said, "I promise you that's going to be your project."
Chapman: "Let's bring the team back together!"
Alex: Kind of like that, yeah. And it worked! He created his own team and now they are building some really great models. We are pushing the limits of what mobile VR can do. I'm not sure if you tried the app, but it's quite realistic and once the mobile devices become even more powerful, there's more room for improvement, like we could do actually better models and better animation.
Alex: So we are kind of ready for the next gen of devices.
Alex: It took us maybe less than a year from starting, from playing with it, actually make eight months, from playing with the first VR thing to launching Mondly VR on Oculus Gear VR. So we moved pretty fast, the whole team was kind of excited, it was really like if we had someone visiting our office, or if I would visit anyone's house - see the difference? - I would have a headset with me and always be trying it. I'm sorry maybe this goes a bit, maybe it's not in the script but...
Chapman: Basically you were using everyone around as guinea pigs as much as possible to be able to get...
Chapman: Yeah, a lot of people I'm sure even now don't even have the equipment so it's hard to get a wide base of people to test something unless you hand them the gear and say, "Hey, can you put that on and give it a try?" Yeah, I could see that for sure.
Alex: My father had his birthday and you had there people 65-75, that's the age group, and I took every one of them, I would just find the right time to catch them alone and say, "Hey I've got this cool stuff, you want to see it?"
I really tried it on all people, I wanted to know, "Is this a gimmick, or if this could potentially be something big?"
Alex: I think that if you offer the right experience with the right guidance, that's where I think the problem is, people first don't get to experience it and second they don't know what to try. If you are going to try a roller coaster, I know I'm getting of the script now, I think that people should be really careful what kind of experiences they create because if it is giving you nausea or something like that, people are never going to try that again. I saw it myself.
The idea was I tried it with kids, with colleagues and even with grandparents. That was the first year of trials before launching Mondly VR.
Chapman: Wow, that's amazingly quick implementation there. I need to get a set myself, I am guilty of only thus far watching the YouTube that others have offered about showing their VR experiences with Mondly and stuff like that. As a kind of random aside, there are some excellent videos out there if you search for things like "grandma uses VR for the first time" or whatever. It reminded me of it when you said you were giving it to old people, if you had any experiences of them throwing up their arms, because there are some really funny ones out there, just the reactions people have the first time they are immersed in VR.
Alex: Yeah, I saw them. I was trying to be very careful with them. What made me really embrace VR was I saw some reactions of joy combined with a kind of bliss, so I really saw my aunts, my mother, when they experienced my app or showing them some really nice video of a forest or of some city across the world, they would really be mesmerized by it.
Alex: Seeing that expression on their face and seeing their face after that, and them saying, "Wow, that was great, thank you for doing that for me, I never thought I would see that city in my life." Like that.
So yeah, I still think there's huge potential there, we just need to find a way to bring it to people.
Chapman: Like you say, the technology is still limited in as far as what you can deliver effectively on the devices right now.
Some people are familiar with virtual reality and augmented reality and the difference but I just quickly would like to also touch on the Mondly AR - the augmented reality experience - which is really where you're seeing, instead of seeing a completely different world, you're seeing the world that's around you except it's being augmented with things around you superimposed on it. This is yet another amazing tool for language learners, you can immediately have the subject you're learning about pop into the room, if it's 'elefante' you can see an elephant right there.
Chapman: Right. So how does Mondly leverage AR?
Alex: Thanks for that question, I feel joy just to speak about it. It's kind of what keeps me going, just the possibilities ahead.
So how Mondly AR... like you said, you're bringing a teacher in your room. Like when you're in your room and you are teleporting a teacher who would... we need to speak about it like this, the way that it blends, right, blends, I was looking for that word. It blends in your room, it has shadows, illumination, lighting depending on the way the sun shines.
So really while looking in your phone you would see a teacher or a friend or a waitress in front of you and she's looking at you, she's following you with her eyes and she's able to engage in a conversation. Moreover, something that normal people can't do, this teacher or this mentor can spawn different object from animals who are moving, completely lifelike, really photorealistic animals. When you said 'elefante', we all know what an elephant looks like, but when you see it in your room and it touches my ceiling and if I want to see his eyes I have to raise my arm to pan around and see the eyes and whatever features they have. You have to see it to see how it impacts you.
So that's what I think Mondly does, it makes language learning more memorable because it shows you things that you're not really used to seeing like that. You're not used to seeing an animal in your room, you're not used to seeing a car or we have planets, okay, planets are not life-sized but it's pretty cool to see the solar system in your room and how it rotates and study the planets and study the asteroids and study their orbits. So it's completely something new.
Alex: It's very sci-fi I would say. If you've seen Blade Runner, I it was quite a popular movie last year, Blade Runner 2049. So when you spawn or when you teleport the teacher or the waitress, the 3D character in your room, it kind of looks like Joy in Blade Runner and she tries to behave the same. As I said, if you move around the character, it will follow you with their gaze because you can pinpoint, you know where the phone is, which is kind of a technical thing but for someone who is experiencing it, they are like, "Holy Shit!" This thing is - I'm sorry, I was not supposed to swear!
Chapman: But that's not really a swear word.
Alex: So they're like, "Oh this thing is following me!" and if you move around the room it will start following with you. Those are some things you do not really expect. If you tap the screen, you can engage and make the animals or whatever objects you spawn, they would do something, so you can kind of interact with them. And that's only the beginning. This is Version 1 but we've got a lot of things in the lab for Version 2 where you'd be able to detect objects in your room so the experience will be even more personal. Like you would have a conversation about what the lesson is but it can also relate to what's in your room or other things that are personal to your setting.
I'm not going to say more, I don't want to give away more!
Chapman: Okay, hah!
Alex: That's how we see it, we want to make learning a language as personal as possible. It should be about you, where you are, what you're wearing and what you want to do more than just a standard lesson.
Chapman: Exactly. One of the things that I purport about language learning is that if it doesn't remain relevant and interesting to you then motivation lacks and success if not achieved. But if you're able to somehow wrap the language learning in a context that you enjoy, for instance topics that you enjoy, I love kitesurfing so if I can start to learn about wind and about the different things that are involved in kitesurfing in a new language, that's gonna keep me interested. So that makes total sense that you can incorporate these objects even around you, so don't want to give away too much but that's pretty exciting.
I guess I'd like to ask, too, the back end of the VR/AR stuff, the technology that you're using, are you able to talk at all about that?
Alex: Well, so it's based on our chatbots so you are seeing a pattern now. The chatbots who were developed two years ago, and then we had VR where we connected the chatbots with the 3D environment...
Chapman: Can I interject for just a second?
Alex: Yeah sure.
Chapman: The chatbot a kind of artificial intelligence, is that correct?
Alex: Recently I read an article in the Venture Beat about the four levels of chatbots, or of AI. AI as you know is being used in many contexts, it has a large interpretation if I can say so. I would say it is intelligent in a way that you can actually have a conversation with this - should I call it a software? It is an AI but I won't be able to go too deep into it, I would have to say it's not an AI that can discuss about anything. Because this is about language learning, we are kind of guiding the language learners to stay in that context or in that subject.
So it is AI but you're not going to be able to discuss about everything, we are not at that level now. I mean, even Google or Apple Siri are not great all the time. They are great, but they are not great all the time.
So we are kind of focusing on an experience that would guide the user to stay there in that context and try to use the specific language for that scene so to speak.
So it is AI but something people speak about AI and they imagine it is something that knows everything but it doesn't. It's trying to be good at what it does.
Chapman: So you said we're seeing a pattern that you developed the chatbots and as these chatbots learn as they go along, and you were able to weave them into a virtual reality environment.
Alex: They do learn and actually we learn. First of all, you as a developer have to learn and use the anonymized data that you get from users, you've got certain answers that you can use to improve the way the conversation goes, to come up with better answers or better suggestions. We are doing that. We could still do a lot more, that's why we're kind of starting now machine learning and everything you can do with deep learning, reinforced learning and all that. Potentially you could develop a teacher that could be able to speak about everything but I would see it in the future.
Chapman: Right. That's really interesting stuff there, I'm personally fascinated with it and I was so happy to come across, or to watch as Mondly released all these things because it was some things that I kept thinking, "Gosh, this is such a cool thing for language learning!" and these guys are the ones doing it!
To move on a bit because I don't want to take your entire evening...
Alex: Don't worry.
Chapman: There's a specific version of Mondly for kids that plays a lot like a game. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Alex: MondlyKIDS, that's a special project that's very close to my heart. It's basically making language learning fun and easy but for kids. It's very colorful, it's very animated, it uses a lot of pictures and we tried to create our own style of drawing the objects that we are presenting. It uses sounds and it's kind of a very joyful app. It's again working in 30 languages from 30 languages, so it's being used worldwide and I think the first month when it launched, we were featured (in the app store) and last year we even go a best of 2017 from Google and the app also became Editor's Choice.
So that was really fun to see because it was kind of a new app, so it was great to see this recognition. But we had a surprise... The surprise came almost a year later after we launched. And it came from my brother's nephew. So my brother has a nephew, he's almost four years old now, so he was three or four years old, and we'd visit sometimes. He's not really allowed to use a phone or a tablet, but he became one of our testers, again as I said. So he started to use MondlyKIDS and I was not aware of what was happening, I saw him playing with it for a couple of minutes, I got some feedback, went back to work.
But then a few months later my brother is like, "Did you know Stefan is using the app daily?" He did 160 lessons, he knows all the animals, that's a lot of lessons, 160!
Chapman: That's a good attention span for a four-year-old!
Alex: Bear with me, I had the chance to witness it myself. So (my nephew) says, "If you don't believe it, just try to ask him the animals or some objects." And he would name them all!
So I asked him one time, "What do you call 'tiger'?"
So his dad said, "That's not right, you have to pronounce the 'r' more like 'tigerrr'."
And I said, "No, no, no! If you listen, he's learning from the British English version and you don't have a strong 'r' there, you barely hear it."
Alex: So he was actually learning the right pronunciation, using the app and listening to a native speaker.
Chapman: That's cool.
Alex: Yeah, I thought so too, you know. Then I noticed how committed to the app he was. So imagine this, it's me and my brother, it's a nice Sunday afternoon, I'm visiting him, Stefan is visiting him, and me and him we're playing the FIFA football (soccer) game.
We played for ten minutes and Stefan is using the app, tap tap, listening and speaking. We played another game and Stefan is still using the app. I look at him and he's tired of holding the phone, so at this point he's laying on the couch barely keeping his head up and the phone was laying on the couch, and he would still tap and play! And we were like, "This is crazy!" We should be the ones learning and he should be the one playing, but it was the other way around.
So it was something that if I didn't see it, I wouldn't know just how useful this can be. And I know there are things to improve, but I also know that it's really useful and that it works. And you know, the kid has access now to more apps on the phone, but he'd always go for this one. For me, that was the biggest compliment ever.
Chapman: Definitely, and it's a complete 180, a complete turn from what is generally children's experience learning language which is being in an uncomfortable setting at school and have to make strange noises around people they want to look cool around and no look uncool around. So for a lot of people, their first experiences with language learning were kind of terrifying and embarrassing which leads to a lifetime mentality that, "Oh languages aren't for me" or "I'm not that kind of learner, I can't do that" and much of it stems back to the psychology of having been in a stressful environment and having been embarrassed or been put on the spot in front of your friends. So I think that's a brilliant way to make people feel confident, to make children feel really confident about the experience of learning languages so that when they do go into the kind of everyday academic setting they might say, "Oh this is kind of a weird way to learn languages! Why don't you use Mondly?"
Alex: That's a great point, Chapman, and if we go back to the first few minutes of our conversation, I said I learned languages in school and I was always really good in school. I now remember that I had someone who was better than me in the classroom, we were kind of fighting for first place, and when French became a subject, this colleague was not the best in French. Learning a new language was something strange for her. From my point of view, from that point in time she started to lose confidence and did not stay the first in class.
Alex: So it kind of complements what you said but I think it can really do something to your self-confidence if you feel inadequate for something like that.
Alex: Very interesting.
Chapman: A couple of podcasts ago I did a podcast about kicking the fear of language learning and about how a lot of those fears are rooted in our initial experience learning languages.
I wanted to ask as well, just to quote something from the website: "Mondly uses solid neuroscience combined with cutting edge technologies to get you talking new languages faster than anyone else."
If you could touch on the neuroscience that you guys have employed a bit, that'd be great.
Alex: Okay, the subject is interesting. In our team, we are now thirty people by the way.
Chapman: Wow. Thirty people, thirty languages!
Alex: Thirty people, thirty languages, is the full-time team. But it doesn't include the language translators or voice actors. We have at least two for each language so overall there are 200 people that have been working on the app.
Alex: Thank you, it's pretty crazy to learn to manage. But also it's fun.
So yeah, in this team we also had people who would bring their experience from school, like they were doctors in machine learning or in something that would study, well machine learning is one thing, but you mentioned neuroscience. How do people study? How to trigger retention? To create retention.
In this regard, we use a spaced repetition algorithm. You hear of that in the industry, there are more apps that use that, they would repeat a certain notion, to try to give it to you to repeat it when it's the best time, when you're about to forget it. That's the kind of algorithm we use to increase retention and to make language learning easier.
Like I said, there are more people using that on the market but we have our own made out of reading books, implementing some stuff and then from things we learned from our users.
Chapman: I really wanted to find out a bit about how the users have influenced the developments of Mondly and to what extent feedback has driven new ideas and new paths for you all.
Alex: First of all, reading reviews is really fun. We've got about 100,000 written reviews and about 800,000 ratings.
Alex: Yeah, it's great. For me, you know it's something that allows me to learn for users but also something that gives me a lot of satisfaction. And sometimes pain! Because if you read ninety-five really nice reviews but five of them are people who have been frustrated by something, be it something that we didn't make clear enough or just maybe sometimes...
Chapman: Something they didn't understand even.
Alex: Because you're serving so many languages and languages have such nuances, it doesn't even have to be a mistake, it could only be a misinterpretation or something from our side or from their side - this is normal. But it gives you a lot of pleasure but also a lot of pain and when we feel that, we want to solve it.
So what we learned from users, there are still things we need to do about offering more flexibility in how we treat translations or a certain term or notion, there are more ways you could say something, there are synonyms. Languages are almost infinite! And we try to serve thirty of them.
So what we've learned is that there is more to do. That's why we have ongoing proofreading, ongoing enriching of our database. Because we offer users a way to give feedback on each exercise, we get a lot of feedback from them. Every time they use the app, they are able to push a button and say, "Hey, I think there's a mistake here" or "There's a better way to say it" - we take that feedback and we run it by our translators and if it's valid we put that back into the app and modify exercises or give more options.
Alex: So yeah, I would say ever since we started, the users have been impacting our development. I would give you one simple thing: Four years ago when we launched we saw, "Okay, the app is great but after a few days there's a huge drop in usage".
And then I saw it in myself! Hey, it actually happened to me, too, and I am supposed to use the app daily, you know?!
Chapman: It's part of your job!
Alex: But it's also part of my passion, it's even more that my job.
Chapman: Of course.
Alex: So that's when we came up with the idea, "Okay, what if we give the users something new every day?"
So you've got your app, I don't know 500 lessons, everyone has a million lessons, the idea is that once you know it's there you're trying one and two and three lessons, okay I see this, I see that category, I can do this, I can do chatbots, at some point you feel like there's nothing really more to do or I could do more things but it'd be really great to get a surprise everyday, we all like surprises.
So that's when we came up with the idea of the daily lesson and this is something that everyone gets, a new lesson everyday. It doesn't matter if you're a free users, it doesn't matter if you're a paid user, even if you have access to everything inside the app, tomorrow you're going to get a new lesson that is different than the lessons you have today in the app.
Alex: So we thought that would make people go, spark the curiosity, "What's in it for me today? What's new?"
Alex: And it worked. When we saw that it works, we even added notifications, all apps have notifications but we try to go a step further and every daily lesson has a notification that would describe what's in the lesson. It also gives you, I don't know if you noticed, it gives you a motto or something to learn, like "Food is what fuels your life" and from the notification you can see that today we're going to learn about food or we're going to learn about greetings. So when you tap, you know exactly what's gonna happen, what this is gonna be, but you don't know exactly what's there, it's something new, you never did that lesson before.
Alex: And this is great, it increased the retention hugely and now we have people who have been using the app for seven hundred days without paying a dime.
Alex: And that's something everyone can verify, you just go to the leaderboards and you can see the top people doing 600, 500, 700 days and they don't have a crown next to their name, it means they haven't paid, they're not a premium user, they're using the app for hundreds of days.
Chapman: Yeah, just the free lesson everyday.
Alex: And that goes with the weekly quiz which is twenty minutes and with the monthly challenge which is a one hour lesson. So it doesn't matter if you have money, you can get a lot of powers of language learning during a month for free in all these thirty languages. Yeah, pretty happy about that.
Chapman: For sure, and to be able to do from your native language, that's huge. Not from English. That really flips the switch there for people because first of all not everybody knows English of course and not everybody's English is good enough to learn another language in. So to have it presented in your own language is really a great feature of Mondly.
Alex: Yeah, it goes back to mothers and grandmothers, I wanted her to be able to do that. Like I said, I tested my mother on VR and AR. I tested my mother on learning German. And when she completed the first lesson, I don't know she tried once or twice, and she immediately completed a lesson, and she's not really a smartphone user. That's when I know, if she's not a smartphone user, she's a senior, and she can complete a lesson, like really successfully, that's kind of a good benchmark that we are going somewhere.
Chapman: Yeah, that's it's accessible to everyone, for sure.
Chapman: That brings up one point I was going to ask about. Let's say the more experienced language learner versus a total newbie, are there different ways that you'd recommend learning with Mondly depending on whether you have a lot of experience learning languages or whether you're a polyglot or whether this is sort of a new thing and you're just getting started.
Alex: Okay, that's a great question and it's actually something we are working on quite a lot right now. I would say initially we tried to make the app very accessible to everyone. I would say actually the first prototype of the app was a bit more difficult that what you have now. We were looking at what the users were doing and even written feedback, you know we made the app easier, making it easier to complete the lessons. But with this we also got feedback from people who said, "This is great for beginners but what are you doing for intermediate and advanced people?"
I would say that chatbot was the first thing that really addressed people who can actually have a conversation, intermediate people. This is for them.
Alex: And then we have the conversations, it's one of the last lessons in each category, it's a full conversation. Again, that's more for advanced people. And then you can practice pronunciation.
But we are now looking at how we can make something that's really for advanced people. People who really want to get a big chunk of language, like maybe read a whole story or have a long dialogue, and we are working on that. That's something that I can say, it's gonna be out this year. So we are addressing the advanced users with something that really will make them have to be able to pronounce really well, understand a lot more words and understand the concepts. It's gonna be tougher.
Chapman: Well, that's great, that's exactly what my next questions was, about what kind of exciting things that you can actually mention publicly that are on the horizon, so that's one thing to look forward to. Are there any other things you can hint at, any new features or new things?
Alex: Well, yeah, so recently in the last year we doubled the content in the app and we started with five courses dedicated to professionals. So to people who would be working in the restaurant industry, hotels, doctors, flight attendants and one more, something for business. So we're creating courses for people who already mastered the basics but they need to work in a certain area. So that's one way we developed things. We're gonna create more courses there.
Alex: Of course, we are improving the VR experience and the AR, so again there's so much coming there. I can't want for the glasses, whoever is going to launch the glasses first, it's gonna be good.
Chapman: I guess it's kind of a rather mean question for me to ask you given that in the last year you guys have pushed the envelope so much in the language learning world, I'm not trying to get greedy by asking what's next! It's cool to hear - more content and more specific for different uses, that's really pertinent for people because you don't want to spend a whole lot of time learning unnecessary things, if you're just gonna be in a business environment or you're gonna be a flight attendant or waiting tables, you need to know a very specific and I'd almost say limited range of things you could far more easily tackle if it were presented to you as such, so that makes total sense.
I guess my final question and I'll let you go, it's been really great talking with you, Alex.
Chapman: If you had any personal advice to anyone out there who is interested in learning languages, aspires to be a polyglot, any trips of motivation that you'd share for your experience.
Alex: Well, that's again a great question and I'm going to relate to that, I'm going to speak about something that's happening to me today, it's very personal. So four weeks ago, I had a knee surgery and for three weeks I was not allowed to put weight on one of my legs.
Chapman: Oh dear.
Alex: Well, I'm gonna be okay, but when it happens to you there are moments when you are confused and you be even down a bit, like "What's happening?!"
And what's happening is some of these big muscles in our feet, they lose a lot of their strength very fast, even in 48 hours. So for me three weeks was huge, I mean, I'm a tennis player, I play with my brother, we used to be performance level. He actually even won a national title, so we are quite competitive, it's a fun way to spend time to get relaxed but also be competitive and have fun.
This happened to me, three weeks no weight on my leg, no moving, and now the whole muscle is completely atrophied, there is some atrophy. And even worse, it can get worse, so I went to the doctor a week after the operation and everything was fine, you're doing great, everything is going to be fine. Then I had a moment with an assistant and she said to try to lift my leg and I would look at my leg and nothing would happen. Nothing!
And she's like, "You know you should be able to do it, someone yesterday was able to do it after two days and you're seven days in. I'm gonna help you try."
But it was like nothing. So she said to just try to do some exercises, to flex the muscle, and you'll see that it's fine. One week passes, I'm trying to do the exercises, nothing happens. The muscle is still, like, no reaction. Not even like, you know, no reaction is weird because when you go to the gym and you're flexing and it huts, you see a reaction, you know that it hurts. But when nothing happens, it's like there's no command going from your brain to the muscle, it's very weird. Especially when you're a competitive guy.
One more week passes and still nothing, and I had moment of panic. Nothing happens! I am learning, I am doing it and nothing happens. And then I keep doing that and I even get some help, I went to this clinic where they give you recovery exercises, and I do it one day, two days, three days, not too much but I see the muscle moving, I still can't lift my leg but I see the muscle moving. This is like four weeks in. And then the fourth day, I do the same exercises and someone says, "Keep doing it and try to move a bit like this and like that" and all of a sudden, I'm lifting my leg!
Alex: That was, I didn't expect that, nobody told me it was going to happen but when it happened I was like, "Wow, this is so great!" It was like I was born again!
Alex: So I think that's what happens with language learning too, you're learning and learning and learning, maybe you try to speak a bit and you kind of stutter and then you quit. But you keep doing it and doing it and, one day, you're just going to start having a conversation, 30 seconds, it's gonna be awesome. You're gonna be there. And then from there, you know, "Hey, I can do it, I'm there!" And from there it's a downhill battle.
Chapman: Yeah. Definitely I think it's like a muscle and if I'm on a daily routine, even if it's just twenty minutes, it doesn't matter, as long as I spend ten or twenty minutes a day doing a language or anything, training for something, to run, or whatever it is, all it takes is one or two days of not doing it and suddenly you really notice that that little break caused a whole change in your flow and you have to re-up and start in again when you get in again. So I think your consistency is really good advice, one of the best really pieces of advice in language learning is consistency, consistently.
Well, awesome Alex, I'll let you enjoy your evening here and thank you so much for taking the time, I really have loved hearing about Mondly and about the story and your story and perhaps we can check in down the road a bit and see what's happening.
Alex: Sure, Chapman, this was a great conversation. Thank you, let's keep in touch and good luck in your future interviews and again, great website, I'm gonna be a fan.
Chapman: Cool, thanks a lot Alex.
Alex: Thank you, Chapman.