uTalk Founder Dick Howeson and in-house language expert Nat Dinham were quizzed about the company’s ethos in an interview with New York-based podcaster and speaker Fiel Sahir this week.
Here are some of the highlights:
Why uTalk’s content includes the basics
There’s a reason why the app always includes the words written on men’s and women’s restroom doors. It’s because, back in the company’s early days, Dick spent an uncomfortable half an hour in the deserted arrivals hall of a Hungarian airport. As he tells Fiel:
“I needed to go to the bathroom and there were two doors and in those days no signs on the doors, just words and they were in Hungarian and I had no idea which one was which. I thought ‘easy’ — I will just wait until someone goes in and I waited and I waited and it must have been something like 20 minutes before someone went in one of the doors. The only problem I had after that was I couldn’t decide whether it was a man or a woman!”
How uTalk’s founders were bad at French
The decision to launch a language learning company came about because of a language problem. Dick and his work colleague, Andrew Ashe, went to a business meeting in Paris — and didn’t understand the French that was being spoken.
“They really annoyed us by talking in French all the time and we thought that was bad,” Dick relates with a chuckle. “And then we thought that maybe it was our fault for not learning French at school… and then maybe we thought actually we had really bad teachers at school… and then maybe we thought actually we were just really lazy learners. And that again is part of where our product came from because we wanted something that was easy for lazy learners.”
The pair went on to found uTalk (formerly known as EuroTalk) — and fixed their own language problem.
What a Language Producer does
There’s more than one type of language learner, as Nat proves. Nat, who was obsessed with learning languages from the age of 12, studied Russian and Italian at Oxford University. She then joined the company six years ago after answering an advert for her dream job of Language Producer.
She explains how she originally thought the ad might be a fake because she couldn’t believe someone could be “paid to work with languages every single day, work with native speakers, record them, discuss translation problems and create a new resource. And it was real!”
Not only did the job exist, but she has since met 600 native speakers and translators from around the world and helped record 145 languages. “It’s absolutely fascinating every day,” she says.
Why learn languages?
“Once you have got enough [language] to break through that first barrier and start communicating with people, anything could happen. You have basically unlocked an entire new population of potential friends and probably an entirely new culture,” says Nat.
“For me and for most of us around the world, it’s all about making friends and all too often just one word can make all the difference and even if it’s the wrong word — provided it’s in their language it’ll make them smile, it’ll make things happen. You’ve got to give it a go,” says Dick.
Why everyday language is important
The first words Dick learned in French were ‘la plume de ma tante’ — ‘my aunt’s pen’. Likewise, he says, a Russian friend learned the English words ‘crystal chandelier’ at school and French speakers have learned the English words ‘my tailor is rich’. All these phrases have yet to prove useful!
Where are some of the interesting places uTalk’s recorded a language?
The company’s been to Siberia to record Chuvash in the middle of winter — “the coldest place I have ever, ever been” says Dick — and to the Nevada Desert in the US to record Navajo. “One of the interesting problems there was the guy who spoke Navajo couldn’t read or write it so we needed someone else to tell him what he had to say,” explains Dick.
Interestingly, uTalk’s three biggest-selling languages in the US are Navajo, Scottish Gaelic and Hawaiian. They are currently planning a trip to Hawaii to re-record the language for its uTalk — Learn Any Language app.
How to succeed at language learning
“My advice to someone thinking ‘should I learn a language?’ is don’t set your goals too high like ‘I’m going to get fluent’, ‘I’m going to be able to do everything’. Just set really small simple, easy goals,” says Dick.
“Learn the language you want, have fun doing it and even if you are wrong and you say it with a smile on your face, they will smile back at you and that’s really important. But if you haven’t tried, people don’t respect you in quite the same way,” he adds.
uTalk’s biggest criticism
“One of the biggest pieces of criticism we get from people is that we haven’t done the language they want,” says Dick. “It’s really sad actually. If we haven’t got the language you want, please don’t give us a one-star review.”
Instead, he encourages people to get in touch with uTalk at firstname.lastname@example.org and work with the company to get their language represented. uTalk is also particularly keen to hear from native-speaking communities who’d like their language added to the app.
The uTalk — Learn any language app includes more than 150 languages, with more being added every year, and the company actively supports minority and endangered languages such as Manx and Southern Saami.
Recent requests for new languages to be added include Babylonian which hasn’t been spoken for more than 2,000 years!
One of uTalk’s biggest mistakes
In the early days when the company made language learning CD-Roms, a customer in Holland ordered a Learn Slovakian disc because her son’s fiancée was Slovakian. The customer planned to use her language skills to chat to her son’s future parents-in-law in Slovakia who she was due to visit. Unfortunately, a Slovenian disc was packed in the Slovakian box by mistake and she learned the wrong language for the trip. As well as obviously replacing the disc, uTalk offered to pay for the customer’s flight so she could visit the prospective in-laws again — but with the right language.
“The son came back to us and said I really love your attitude thank you and there’s no way we’re going to make you pay for the flight but it’s really good that you care,” says Dick. “That was really special. We sent her a huge bunch of flowers.”
uTalk’s links with Queen Elizabeth II
uTalk has won two royal awards — The Queen’s Award for Export and The Queen’s Award for Innovation. To mark the achievement, Dick was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Dick says Queen Elizabeth made a big impression on him:
“She is incredibly knowledgeable. I’m sure you can talk to her on any subject. I met her on another occasion as well and she absolutely knew everything about what was going on and I was just hugely, hugely impressed.”
Why uTalk takes customer service seriously
“We are a kind of quirky company in a way, we all care really very passionately about the product and the mission we are on to record all these languages and get them out there and get people learning,” says Nat.
“I think a lot of that dedication that we have as a team is because Dick has always been quite insistent that we always, always listen to the customer. Dick will sit down with us and make sure that we are talking about the customer’s feedback and emphasising that we go above and beyond to make sure they’re happy. It’s not like any experience I’ve had in a previous workplace,” she adds.
How Indian Masala Chai keeps Nat’s stress levels down
“I have a ritual, probably every other day, one of my colleagues take about 10 to 15 minutes in the afternoon to make proper, authentic Indian chai,” she says. “We boil the milk, select the spices, we put them in, we add the tea leaves, we simmer it gently and I find the process of doing that is very, very calming especially if we’ve had a slightly stressful situation or perhaps got too much work on. It completely forces you to do nothing but watch a saucepan for about ten mins.”
Dick’s take-home message:
Never be frightened to knock on doors and say hello.