Note: This is the first interview of a larger series on Smart Polyglot called “Introducing”. I have decided to interview CEOs, entrepreneurs, project creators and small business owners who are trying their luck in the world of language learning. These are completely voluntary and not sponsored. The goal of this series is to take a break from the most famous apps we already know (that are constantly getting reviewed online), all while giving some visibility to other interesting products you might enjoy! Let’s dive in! Yours, Maria Inês.
1. Hi, John! It is a pleasure to meet you! Tell us more about yourself. Who are you and what do you do at Forge Language?
Hi Maria! Great to meet you as well! I’m the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer here at Forge, which, on a two-person team, amounts to doing everything I can on the non-technical side of things, from partnerships to marketing to content and everything in between. And on the technical side is Cameron, Co-Founder and CEO, who speaks an additional language I don’t, which is coding. He has also been leading the charge on the core product as well as putting together a ton of content, both in our offered lessons and our Forge blog. In short, as is the case with start-ups, we both do a bit of almost everything.
2. Forge describes itself as a “Magic textbook for language learners”. Can you tell us more about that, as well as how the idea for this app came along?
Absolutely, the initial inspiration for Forge actually came from Cameron’s trip to China in 2018, where he taught English with an Edtech company. In his preparation for his trip, he realized he had to piece together his Chinese learning process from a ton of different sources, which proved to be a frustrating exercise. And thus arrived Forge, with the goal of giving users the most direct way to achieve their goals by providing access to all these different resources in one place, a “magic textbook” so to speak.
Since then, that concept has grown and evolved and we’re working towards making Forge a hub on an even grander scale, where not only do you have this “magic textbook,” but you also have constantly updated content, community and social aspects, tailored courses, and much more. It’s a vision that we’re excited to bring to life.
3. On your website, you claim Forge has everything language learners need to go from beginner to pro in a new language. What does Forge do differently from other language apps?
As David Freedman of The Atlantic said about one of the other language-learning apps out there, “the app had made me a master of multiple-choice Italian,” which we think captures the limitations of current offerings pretty well. It seems many language-learning apps out there focus on one small piece of the puzzle, such as gamifying the process or vocab matching, which in turn also means the user has only learned one small piece of the puzzle. We’re looking to offer a more robust and thereby more effective educational space where you can learn, review, and apply your knowledge in ways that are most useful to you.
We want to create a dynamic environment around a core curriculum so that you’ll always be equipped with the pillars of a language while also getting new and personalized ways to keep exercising your skills.
4. What is the current state of the app and what new features will we find in the future?
Currently we’re focusing on finishing our Spanish curriculum and making sure our core features are where we want them to be. We’ve also just released packs six and seven of our intermediate courses! In addition to that we’ve launched several themed packs, from Star Wars to the holidays, so you can keep up your progress by learning about topics you’re interested in.
As for next steps, we’re looking to deepen the personalization of Forge so learners are guided through their process of learning on a more individual level. Everyone has different goals, and we want to make sure every journey is accommodated, especially in regards to the feedback and metrics that are available to them so they have a clear roadmap on how to keep improving. And, of course, we’re looking into what other languages we’ll be able to offer soon, we’re just ensuring that our core experience checks all the boxes first.
5. What challenges have you faced since creating Forge?
I would say the biggest challenge has simply been finding the time to hit all the benchmarks we want to hit and accepting that some of our grand vision is still down the road. We have a lot of big ideas and goals we want to achieve, and it can be easy to feel somewhat frustrated about not being at that stage yet. I write fiction as a hobby and it’s a pain I’m deeply familiar with. You dream up an exciting scene that you can’t wait to get to, but you can’t put the cart before the horse. We do take a ton of solace, however, in knowing we’re going to be able to bring these exciting features to the community one day.
Beyond that, we have been exploring ways to bring value to people and make the experience more engaging and effective. Thanks to some strong pushes on Reddit and social media, we’ve gotten a wave of great initial feedback, which has allowed us to improve the product and focus much more on getting fresh content out. We’ve seen great results from that, too, with our users responding positively to the increased flow of content.
6. What does “success” look like to Forge? What would you like to achieve?
For Forge, success is based on the success of the user. At this stage, success for us would be just one person telling us they connected with a family member, a friend, a complete stranger in Spanish and that it’s thanks to Forge. And even on a much grander scheme, that stays very much the same, just expanded to millions of people across hundreds of languages.
Just a few weeks ago, Cameron and I had a lengthy discussion about this and what really resonated with us was the idea of being the “language learning classroom of the 21st-century.” Lofty, I know, and certainly loaded with marketing speak, haha, but it’s actually been a great beacon for us to work towards. I used to work at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and there is a tremendous push to both decipher and create the evolution of education, and we think Forge can be part of that evolution for language learning. Technology has enabled us to connect with people at a scale once thought impossible, but we still need to be able to communicate with these people, so we believe learning new languages is only going to become more vital in the coming years.
7. Many of us language learners are also interested in the backstage of building an app or starting our own language business. What does it take? What was the timeline behind Forge up to this point?
During our earlier days, someone tweeted that the most successful start-ups are the ones that don’t ever run out of optimism, and, in our attempts to get off the ground, we’ve really related to that statement. It’s honestly a daily battle, but what’s helped us is simply believing in what we’re doing. It’s a very exciting freedom, but it’s a daunting one as well.
We’ve been working on Forge for just over a year now. It’s taken a lot of effort and iteration, but we’re excited about some of the things we have coming up. One thing in particular we’re excited about is working with the people you’ve mentioned, the language learners interested in these processes, and seeing how we can best be a support system for them while also learning from their insights as well. It’s hard to start something of your own, from a blog to a business, and we’ve been amazed by how many people in the community have that entrepreneurial engine, so we’re really looking forward to continuing to connect with the community.
8. Something I love about Forge is how willing you are to listen to your users’ feedback. I see it all over your app and your social media platforms. You truly value the word of those who try your product! If we have any kind of feedback to give, in what ways can we communicate it to you?
We’re so glad to hear that! Since day one it’s been a priority for us to get community feedback, that’s been something of a north star for us. The language learning community is so in tune with what is effective and what isn’t, and, more than that, it’s just such a welcoming and inviting group, so we’ve felt right at home. A huge part of how far we’ve come is thanks to the people who have gone out of their way to give us feedback.
And yes, we’re always looking for more! Any means of communication is A-okay with us, from a DM on Twitter or Instagram to reaching out to us directly via the contact form on our site. We want to hear everything our users have to say.
9. John, you’re a language lover yourself. You speak English, Spanish and Japanese! Why these languages?
Haha, well two of those weren’t exactly by choice, but I am so grateful to have learned English and Spanish as soon as I could speak. My mother is from Mexico and my father was from the United States, so I grew up in a household where both languages were in constant use and my life has been better for it.
As for Japanese, my girlfriend and I have always had a huge interest in the culture, and we had a chance to take a course at Stanford. The class was amazing, but we didn’t have many venues to practice Japanese in the following months and much of our understanding of the language stagnated, a feeling I imagine many of us are familiar with. This year we finally visited Japan for the first time and we honed our skills leading up to the trip using some textbooks and apps (as well as Cameron giving me daily lessons). This is the exact process we’re hoping to improve on with Forge, and though my Japanese still needs some work, it was very exciting to be able to navigate a few conversations while there!
10. Here at Smart Polyglot I’m all about promoting language learning through getting out of your comfort zone and getting yourself out there. I have often felt that way while learning new languages, especially when they are radically different from my mother tongue, Portuguese. Have you ever felt that way with languages or in business? Moments in which you felt scared, ridiculous or embarrassed and ended up finding some kind of reward?
First, we just want to say we love what you’re doing with Smart Polyglot and are thrilled to see such quality and meaningful content being put out there, through such a great lens, so thank you, Maria, for everything you’re doing in the community and for inviting us to be a part of it!
I believe I have a perfect story that encapsulates everything you’re talking about here. On the flight over to Japan I refused to use any Japanese with the flight crew because I simply could not build up the confidence to do it, and one of my major fears was that I would mix up my languages. There is a word in Japanese, “daijoubu,” which roughly translates to “that’s alright,” and can be used in a “no, thank you” sort of way. Sure enough, at our very first restaurant in Tokyo, the waiter asked if I would like more tea and I said “daijoubu, gracias.” It was a perfect collision of all three languages: the habit of ending that kind of statement with “thanks” from English, the “daijoubu” of Japanese, and the “gracias” of Spanish. My cheeks burned, I looked down at the table and just said “there it is.” The very thing I feared happened and it happened at our very first restaurant.
And you know what happened? The waiter knew exactly what I meant and praised the fact that we were both speaking Japanese after coming from Los Angeles. People always seem to light up when they see you making an effort to communicate with them, and although I still can’t quite share this tale completely devoid of embarrassment, the result was far greater than if I had just stuck with English and never come around to taking a chance and learning from it.
John, thank you for your time and for giving us Forge Language! It has been a pleasure.
Thanks for having us, Maria, and thanks for giving us Smart Polyglot!
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