A clever concept from three Trinity graduates could be a challenger to Duolingo for language learning.
For those of us who try to keep our cúpla focal alive, we might drop in the odd word as Gaeilge in conversation and, with context clues, a non-Irish speaker should still be able to continue the comhrá. They may even pick up a few focail of their own.
It’s a petit trick of language learning known as the diglot weave technique, and Irish start-up Weeve Languages is using it to “completely change the way languages are learnt”.
That’s according to CEO and co-founder Evan McGloughlin, whose passion for understanding how we learn led him to study neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. His fellow founders are also Trinity graduates. CTO Oisín Morrin studied computer science and linguistics has built up a wealth of experience in translation technology, while product lead Cian McNally is a passionate polyglot with four languages at his disposal.
Together, they are building a machine learning translation engine that can weave a second language into any body of text with varying density. This is the technology that enables the content found via the Weeve app, which McGloughlin calls “the Netflix for learning languages”.
‘There is 50 years of psychological research that supports the diglot weave technique for learning languages’
– EVAN MCGLOUGHLIN
Through the app you can read summaries of popular non-fiction titles from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women to Will Smith’s memoir, Will. The twist is that some of the words are swapped out to another language, to help you learn in context.
“There is 50 years of psychological research that supports the diglot weave technique for learning languages,” said McGloughlin. “The human brain is wired to learn through context which allows our users to attain true fluency in a language rather than just memorisation.”
The user can adjust the level to which the text is altered, and can listen to the material as well as read it. At the moment, the app has English language texts that can be peppered with French or Spanish words. Portuguese, Hindi and English for foreign language texts are promised as ‘coming soon’.
“We also sell classic novels as crisp Weeve paperbacks,” said McGloughlin. “Our book distributor uses the most sustainable and environmentally friendly paper. They also plant a tree for every book purchased.”
‘Never before has it been possible to upskill on your English as well as economics, leadership or even physics’
– EVAN MCLOUGHLIN
The idea works. I can see my own remedial Spanish reaching greater alturas having played around with the app, amazed at how many new palabras I could comprehend. One only needs to see the success of Duolingo to see there’s an appetite for engaging and fun ways to learn languages. While Duolingo tempts its 50m users to stick with it through gamification, Weeve is taking a content-led approach.
“[It’s] simply engaging with content you love and would have read, listened to or watched anyway,” said McGloughlin. “Our ultimate goal is to integrate right into all the platforms our users use on a daily basis and make language learning a purely subconscious process.”
Just two months after launching, Weeve was reaching 25 to 30 users per day. “We have real power users that are finishing weeves on the app and demanding more,” said McGloughlin.
The target audience is primarily young professionals who want to double down on continuous learning. “Never before has it been possible to upskill on your English as well as economics, leadership or even physics,” said McGloughlin. “This young professional cohort love the fact you can learn about topics you are interested in and the language learning just comes naturally.”
And the fact that multilingualism is a valuable workforce skill is not lost on McGloughlin. “There is a huge opportunity in the B2B space as enterprise companies have a huge incentive to upskill their employees.”
So far, everything Weeve has achieved since it was founded in 2020 has been supported by friends and family funding, plus a few “notable investors”. But the team is now raising a pre-seed round that’s expected to close in the coming months.
While headquartered in Dublin, McGloughlin and his founding team have shipped off to Barcelona owing to the Irish capital’s skyrocketing cost of living.
Nonetheless, McGloughlin still finds the start-up scene in Ireland to be “small but incredibly friendly”.
“We are all very close and there’s a lot of collaboration and sense that we want everyone to succeed,” he said. “There’s great support for very early-stage nurturing but a very large gap for those wanting to get the early funding needed to pay for salaries. I believe an essential aspect of the Irish start-up ecosystem will be filling this pre-seed funding gap.”
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