Radio Cade
Radio Cade
Sep 22, 2020
A Better Way to Learn New Languages
Play • 24 min

Despite the plethora of language learning tools, learning a new language is still very difficult for many people. What if it was much easier and much more fun? Dr. Sara Smith, a finalist for the 2020 Cade Prize, Oxford and Harvard educated Assistant Professor at USF, and CEO of MARVL shares how her patented augmented reality app can change how we learn languages.




Intro: 0:01

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida, the museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

James Di Virgilio: 0:38

Welcome to Radio Cade . I'm your host, James Di Virgilio. And today we're going to tackle a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Why is it so hard to learn a new language? And is there a way that we can improve how we or I, or you learn a new language? Joining me today is Dr. Sara Smith. She is the CEO of MARVL, also an Assistant Professor of English to speakers of other languages and foreign language education at the University of South Florida and Doctorate from Oxford time at Harvard. Very, very smart, Sara, welcome to the show. I can't wait to figure out how you can help me and our listeners improve in learning languages.

Dr. Sara Smith: 1:15

Well, thank you so much for having me and thank you for the very flattering introduction.

James Di Virgilio: 1:19

You're most welcome. Now, tell me, let's just jump right into the question of why is it so hard for a three-year-old or myself to learn a new language?

Dr. Sara Smith: 1:28

It's a good question. It's a question, people ask me a lot, you know, learning a new language requires learning thousands and thousands of words, a kindergartner knows about 5,000 words. That's a lot of words and learning a new word is harder than you think you have to be exposed to that word over and over and over before you remember it. So one of the reasons why learning a new language is hard is because you have to build up that bank of words. You need to get all those vocabulary words, and that takes time and that takes effort.

James Di Virgilio: 1:54

And so when I'm traveling around France and I'm seeing words during my vacation, and I can learn a few of them, the ones I typically will learn the most are the ones I engage with the most. If I see this word 15, 20, 30 times, it sticks in my mind that sortie means an exit or whatever the case may be. But if I don't get exposed to these other vocabulary words, then I don't have enough words to draw on to begin to speak the language.

Dr. Sara Smith: 2:17

Yeah. And I love that you use as an example, you traveling around France because that's actually an even better way to learn. New words is when you're having experiences. One of the things that makes learning a language when you're either trying to teach yourself at home with your own materials, or even in a classroom setting, is that you're not having varied experiences and exposures to those words, right? You're only encountering them in these sort of flat interactions where it's just there in front of you in print. Maybe it comes with a definition, but if you're traveling around France, you're having experiences, you're having emotions. You're encountering that word in an authentic setting, right? You're encountering the word exit while you're looking for the exit. So you have a feeling that goes with it and you see that word, you're seeing it with an exit. So that's an even better way to learn it. We know that if we can add these sort of visual components, these emotional components, adding something participatory, like you're participating in the experience, you're using the language, then you're actually going to learn it faster. So your example of learning words in France, that's one of the best way to do it.

James Di Virgilio: 3:19

And so incomes your problem solving solution. There's a plethora of ways to attempt to learn languages. The large majority of them are doing what you said to try to build vocabulary. But if you're not actually in the country, you're not experiencing this. It can be onerous difficult. If not downright impossible to do thus, we have MARVL. Now, MARVL is not the superhero comic book that we know what , what, what is MARVL and what is augmented reality?

Dr. Sara Smith: 3:48

Well, I want us to be the superhero of your language learning experience. And that's what I hope MARVL is. So MARVL is an augmented reality app and we use augmented reality to create these immersive experiences. So we can sort of get you closer to that experience of being in France, needing an exit, asking for an exit, looking and seeing the word for exit next to the exit. We want to create these immersive dynamic experiences to make that language learning experience a little more fun, and then also faster and more effective because you're processing it and you're storing it as a different type of memory. So that's what MARVL seeks to do. And by using augmented reality, we can create these interactive experiences. So a lot of people are familiar with Pokemon Go that's the AR game that everyone can think of. And remember, and that used augmented reality to create the illusion that these animated monsters co-existed with you in your real world, right? So when you would look through the lens of your device, they would pop up like they lived there with you in the real world. And that's, I think part of the fun that augmented reality can bring to the table it's whimsical and it's magical. And it creates this illusion without taking you out of your real world. Virtual reality takes you completely out of your real world, right? It separates you completely augmented reality. We're just adding some fun and magic to your real world. So what our app does is it builds on a traditional vocabulary flashcard. And when you look at that flashcard through the lens of your device, using our app, an animated fun, engaging teacher character will pop up on the card and give you that vocabulary instruction using all of the magic of augmented reality. So if it's a word like swoop, then we have pictures of planes on the card. Those planes will swoop off the page. We have the characters have props and do activities that go with it. And also try to talk to you, ask you to do things with them, have that interactive component, say it with me, present the word in a lot of different forms. So you can have that participatory, interactive experience. It's going to help you learn that word faster and also have more fun.

James Di Virgilio: 5:50

Now, Sara, if I have never used augmented reality, am I able to do this on my cell phone or iPad? Or do I need a special device?

Dr. Sara Smith: 6:00

That's a great question. No, any smartphone works AR is ready for even our most medium old smartphones like mine. So it works well for tablets and smartphones. You don't need a device specifically for it. Most phones nowadays can do it really, really well.

James Di Virgilio: 6:14

So I get the app on my phone. I can then begin to experience augmented reality. And for those of you that have never experienced this, if I am in my room, if you're aware, you're listening right now, when I hold up my phone towards a wall or towards the seat of my card or wherever I am, and then I put a flashcard down, I'm going to have this character Ivan pop up and then begin to describe this car to me as if he is sitting right next to me, correct?

Dr. Sara Smith: 6:42

Yeah. So he's a cute little animated character. He has a best friend. Who's a sloth who's kind of his sidekick. So Watson will pop up. He's going to stand on the card, kind of like a magic little cartoon character in front of you. And he's going to do exactly what a really good bilingual teacher would do. A really well-trained language teacher is going to provide you that word in a couple of different forms. Watson's going to say the word slowly for you. So Watson's kind of there to help, especially for young children, sound it out alert you to features of how it's written and he'll define the word help describe the word. And there's all sorts of sort of additional extensions and supports. He'll give you a little lesson, just like you had a bilingual teacher there in front of you. And one of the key things that MARVL offers is that because we have the capacity to plug and play for many different languages. We can have Ivan give you a definition in your first language, in addition to giving you all that information in the language you're trying to learn. And we know that especially children learn a lot faster if they just get that supporting definition in their first language.

James Di Virgilio: 7:42

So if I'm French, I opened this up, I see the first definition of block in French, and then it's going to wind up describing it to me in English, after the fact.

Dr. Sara Smith: 7:51

Exactly. So Ivan's there to support you. He's going to tell you about it. He's going to show you if there's anything that he can do to act it out. If there are any props that would help, he's going to have all that there for you. And he is going to tell you in both the language you're trying to learn and the language you already speak a really rich description of what this word means. So you have something you already know to anchor it to.

James Di Virgilio: 8:12

Now , how much better is this? We talked about how hard it is to learn a language. Are you able to quantify how much this improves a child or an adult's ability to learn?

Dr. Sara Smith: 8:21

So we're in our early efficacy studies and we're really enjoying using it. We know that kids as young as four can do this on the first try. We know that after an hour we see trackable gains for four year olds and we see fun cascading benefits to their parents. So we see the parents also learn new words when they're using the app with their children. So that's where we are right now. We know from a whole body of research that visual and audio are stored and processed separately in memory. And so we know that this is faster than something that's just flat. So something that's just going to show you text and a picture. We know that having that video component is going to be a lot faster. And so we're hoping to move from those 12 exposures, maybe down to something like seven times, right? So just cutting that down and cutting that down. And we're hoping that we can add enough participatory experiences, that it might be as fast as one exposure, right? So if what Ivan does when he pops up is really fun and really cute, and you're enjoying it. You may remember it the same way you would. If you were having an experience where you were having a great dinner and someone puts something on the table and said the word for that food. And it clicked the first time. And I think for all of us who studied other languages or lived in contexts where we're using another language, we know those times where it only takes once that sort of magic moment, right? Where we have enough participation enough authentic languages when it's like you get it on the first go and you never forget it. And so we're hoping we can get you there and that we can get kids there sometimes even with just one go.

James Di Virgilio: 9:46

So how novel is this idea? Are there lots of competitors that are doing something very similar? How unique is this ?

Dr. Sara Smith: 9:52

Oh, that's a great question. So we are the only ones to my knowledge, using augmented reality for dual language instruction like this for providing something fun for kids, especially with cartoon characters and where we're also providing that first language support. And I think that's a really key component, especially when we're thinking about children. Not only do we want to make sure that we're teaching new words the best way we can and the best way we can is with support in the first language. But we also want to continue development in the first language, right? So if it is a word that maybe the child doesn't necessarily know super well in their first language, we have the extra benefit of we're teaching two languages. And I don't know of any other app that's doing that. So that's really exciting. As far as augmented reality goes, we actually have the patent on augmented reality for dual language instruction. So I'm relatively confident. We're the only ones doing that.

James Di Virgilio: 10:42

Now, do you have a background in tech? I do a lot of work with entrepreneurs. I frequently come across people who have a fixed mindset and others who have a much more open mindset about what they can or cannot tackle. You've created what seems to be a very tech, heavy innovation. Do you have a background in tech? We know that you're a master of language, but where did the tech side come from?

Dr. Sara Smith: 11:04

That's a really good question, too. If it's possible to have the opposite of a background in tech, I was a teacher for a long time. I taught English as a foreign language. I taught in a lot of different fun settings and I came to tech, not because I wanted to use tech per se, but because I wanted to solve a challenge and technology gave me a way to solve that challenge. I wanted to solve the challenge of not having enough bilingual teachers in our classrooms to provide our children who are learning English as a new language, the kind of rich bilingual instruction that I wanted them to have. And I know that from my own experiences as a teacher, sometimes I would have kids in the class. I might have 18 kids who spoke 17 different languages. I don't speak any of those languages. So what can I do to provide that first language support and help those children continue to develop in both of their languages? And so for me, it was much more about seeing tech as a way to solve a challenge I was working on. And when I started, not only did I not think of myself as someone who had an expertise in tech, I probably thought of myself as someone who was unlikely to be able to use tech well or innovate. And I think there are actually a lot of us who are involved in other types of challenges who may have that light bulb moment of thinking, you know what? I think technology can help me solve my challenge, but because we're outside of the tech world, we feel like, Oh, but I don't know anything about tech. And I hope that I can at least encourage other people who are coming from that place. Like I was of saying, okay, I know about this challenge. I know we need an innovation here, but I don't have the expertise in tech to really say well, but maybe nobody in tech is familiar with this challenge. Maybe nobody in tech is considering how technology could innovate and solve some of the challenges I'm facing. And just being able to see that from the other side, you can teach yourself the tech, or you can bring in people who have the tech expertise. What really is missing are people who have the insight to solve a challenge with tech.

James Di Virgilio: 12:54

Yeah, that's very well said. And that's something that I find myself talking a lot with people about is innovation comes first from exactly as you described it, there's a problem that needs to be fixed. And then you find out how do I fix the problem? You don't have to have all the actual skills to fix the problem. That's the beauty of a free idea market, where you find someone else who has a skill to assist you. And then you begin to of course, build a team. But oftentimes the most important thing is to have the idea, Hey, could we improve this? Could we solve this by using something that may exist or by talking to someone who has never thought about it, but might be able to help me build a tool. And that's obviously exactly what you have done. Now tell us Sara, where you are in this stage of this app. Is this something I can download right now into my phone and begin using? Where are we?

Dr. Sara Smith: 13:42

I wish I could say you could download it. Now. My hope is that I will be able to say yes to you. If you follow up and ask me again in November, we're hoping to have something ready in November, December for people who speak English, but want to learn Spanish and people who speak Spanish, but want to learn English. So that's where we want to start with our eventual goal would be to have many, many, many different language combinations available for people to play with the use . And in the very long run, our goal is to actually open it up and have it be what will hopefully be a global network of users can create their own materials as well. But for the moment, our goal is by November, December to have some Spanish, English or English, Spanish materials available for people to download and play with and give us feedback on, we want to know, are you liking it while you're using it? Our website is up. So if you're interested, you can go to our website and put some information so that we can contact you when the app is up and ready to go. And you can be in our special group of starting out users, that , that we really will value your feedback.

James Di Virgilio: 14:42

What is the website? Don't leave us hanging.

Dr. Sara Smith: 14:45

Yeah. So the website is So that's M A R V L language dot com.

James Di Virgilio: 14:50

Let's talk a little bit about getting something like this into the hands of me or others for our listeners, right? So it's , it's September. Now, November is two months from now. Of course, you started this journey a while back. Where are you with financing it? Did you do it all on your own? Have you sought investors? Have you gotten grants? Have you won business pitch competitions? How have you been able to keep operations going to make this dream a reality?

Dr. Sara Smith: 15:15

So I started this and this is a very small amount of money. I started this with, but I'm so, so grateful for it. I started this with a $5,000 it's called a mini grant. So I had this idea and I got a $5,000 grant from my college. And that was enough to make a very basic prototype of what I wanted to do that worked with just three words. So I just had my special three vocabulary words, and that was enough to get a patent. So I started this with literally $5,000 and I used every penny of that. And with that, I then went forward since I had the patent at that point. And I had a prototype that I could show people and get them excited too , which I think is a big part of when you say, you know, I'm really excited about this. I wanted to just have enough to get other people excited too . And from that, I then was able to get a grant from the USF foundation. And I'm very, very appreciative for that. So that's where we are at the moment. And that really has been thanks to enormous amounts of support from University of South Florida and their enthusiasm behind the idea, and really encouraging me to keep going with it. And one of the things that I feel so grateful for is every step of the way, anyone that I've shown this to, that I can let play with the app. And they're always excited by how fun and cool it is to have that magic of a character popping up and teaching you another language. So I think I've been really fortunate to have those sources of funding. And I'm also taking part in a program called Tech Women Rising, which is an accelerator specifically for women in tech. And that's been another great source of just learning about how to do this. It's hard, I'm an academic for before that, I was a teacher. I don't have a background in tech, as you mentioned. I also don't have a background in business. So I have none of the backgrounds in anything except language learning. So all of these resources have been really helpful for me. And for helping me learn the ins and outs of this business.

James Di Virgilio: 17:10

Well, it sounds like maybe you need a MARVL for business and for tech that would have sped up your ability to learn those new languages.

Dr. Sara Smith: 17:18

I would love to, you know, I've talked about making other decks of cards for things like STEM words, you know, things where it's not necessarily language learning, but it is to help with that. Adding all of the words that you need to learn to have some sort of extra help with learning.

James Di Virgilio: 17:33

All right . Let's ask a tough question, but an important one, if MARVL were not to make it, the future goes on, it's a great idea. It's working really well right now. Why do you think that might be what's maybe the biggest obstacle or threat to MARVL success?

Dr. Sara Smith: 17:48

That's a good question. I think people are pretty resistant to change. I think that may be a big part of it. It's really different to shift from, for example, just book written materials, right? To add on top of that augmented reality materials, because that's what they are there. Additional learning materials that just take the form of an animated character talking to you in an augmented reality situation. So I think there's some resistance to change there. Yeah, I think that's my number one answer is that it is a little different. It is a little weird as much as I feel totally fine having an animated character, teach me things. Maybe some people want a less whimsical approach. They want something more serious. And I think maybe it can feel not serious if you're learning a language from an animated character in an animated sloth. So I think that may be a part of it is because it's different and the resistance to change on that side.

James Di Virgilio: 18:42

Sure. And it sounds like if a lot of this is going to be directed towards children, if the parents themselves are unaware of it or don't understand how to help them use it or can't get it set up, that could be a hurdle. How do you get your brand out there? How do people become aware that MARVL exists so that enough of them use it?

Dr. Sara Smith: 19:00

So I'm hoping teachers will be excited about it. That's really where I think we can be really successful. And part of my goal with MARVL is to create the resources that will help teachers in increasingly diverse classrooms. So my hope is that by working with teachers, communicating with teachers and a big part of why this was created was to respond to what teachers are saying and experiencing, which is I need help. I need resources. Just like I described. My classroom is full of children who speak all these amazing languages. And I want to support that. But at the beginning of each school year, I can't learn 17 new languages, right. As much as I wish I could. I just can't. So my hope is that teachers will really be the ones who say, I see this resource, I see how this can help me deliver optimal, differentiated instruction to all the kids in my classroom. And that they will be that bridge also to supporting parents and saying, you know, I'm going to go to my curriculum. I'm going to see what I have coming up this week. I'm going to pull the flashcards that go with that, and I'm going to send those home so that kids and parents can use them together, or I'm going to have them here in the classroom for the kids to use in the classroom. So I really hope that we could create something that is so useful to teachers, that they are excited about it and that they are creating that bridge for us. I think also we need to make sure that we create something that parents are part of. I think there are parents who feel like technology may not be the best thing for their kids, or they want to have experiences that don't involve technology. And I think that's amazing and I think that's great and I love traditional flashcards and reading together and all of that stuff. But we also want to create something where we can also have this technology component and that can be a rich experience for parents and kids to have together.

James Di Virgilio: 20:40

That's a good point there at the end, this idea that, Hey, maybe we're too connected to our devices, right? Maybe our posture is completely falling apart because we spend our days leaned over a computer screens or tablet, screens, or cell phone screens. But at the end of the day, if you're using technology to improve something, then you can begin to say, Hey, it's worth an hour of time staring at a screen. If I'm in fact learning your language, that's a life beneficial skill averse. Maybe if I'm browsing social media or something that may not be as applicable. So lots of interesting thoughts and ideas there, Sara, before we let you go, we have to get some words of wisdom from you. You've obviously done something outside of the box yet also very intuitive and logical with solving a problem. So give us some words of wisdom for those that are listening that have their own ideas or their own thoughts or want to become entrepreneurs one day, what are some key pieces of advice you would give them ?

Dr. Sara Smith: 21:31

I mean, I know it sounds silly to say, go for it, but just go for it. It doesn't matter if you were never voted most likely to be an entrepreneur or you were never voted most likely to go into tech. I think probably I would have been voted least likely to be an entrepreneur and least likely to go into tech, but because I was so excited about not just my solution, but excited about solving this challenge, I was able to get other people excited and I was able to slowly and methodically find the support I needed to make this idea a reality. And so I think, especially for those of us who maybe haven't spent our whole lives hearing that we are going to be tech entrepreneurs and gearing that we're the ones to do this. If you think you have something really good, if you think you see something that no one else has seen or put into practice yet, I would say don't be held back by whether or not other people think of you as an entrepreneur or a tech person. You can get all that support. It's that shooting star moment where you see a way to help a challenge and help resolve a problem. That's really, I think what the magic is.

James Di Virgilio: 22:31

Well, Sara, thank you so much for joining Radio Cade today. Congratulations on being a Fibonacci finalist for the Cade Prize, which is given out each and every year to the best innovations and ideas and years of courses right in the center of that. It's been wonderful learning about MARVL. We certainly wish you nothing but success. And I myself hope that I'm able to learn a language much faster so that my travels are that much more enriching.

Dr. Sara Smith: 22:56

I hope you'll use MARVL. I hope it helps you.

James Di Virgilio: 22:58

On behalf of Radio Cade. I'm your host, James de Virgilio Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida . This podcast episodes host was James Di Virgilio and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts, or recorded hardwood, soundstage, and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Columns and features violinists Jacob Lawson.

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