Canadian tech start-up hopes to add fluency to language learning

Fluent tries to get people to learn languages as they go about their daily internet use

Fluent's co-founders (from left to right): Yaniv Silberman, Olga Sanchis, Gavin Dove, Ara Ghougassian. Courtesy Fluent
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Gavin Dove, chief executive and co-founder of language learning start-up Fluent, has been building for as long as he can remember.

“Building was my joie de vivre,” he says over Zoom from Canada, as he nostalgically recollects cutting through tangled brambles and thorny shrubs as a child, armed with enough plywood to build a fort.

His parents, though, had preordained plans for his future. As Hong Kong and British-Ghanaian immigrants, they valued two things above all else – “a good education and a good job”.

A career as a doctor ticked off both, so he set out to follow his parents’ plans, studying mechanical engineering at McGill University in Quebec before planning to enrol in medical school.

Fluent on Macbook. Courtesy Fluent
The Fluent software on Macbook. Image: supplied

Once there, he could rarely be found in classrooms, though. When he wasn’t calculating which assignments he could safely discard without failing, he was on the school’s robotics team building Bhumi – a Mars Rover Project designed to compete in the European Rover Challenge. When McGill beat 40 other teams to win third place, a fire was lit. “This time, that feeling of building was intoxicating,” Mr Dove says. “After that, I don’t think I could ever go back to classes and a normal career.”

So, with his plans of becoming a doctor jettisoned, Mr Dove went on to co-found an intelligent transit start-up with a classmate from McGill. However, this didn't work out and he soon bowed out of the company, landing him back at square one: brainstorming start-up ideas with a group of friends.

“We thought it would be fun to only come up with bad ideas,” Mr Dove says.

One of these was a Deliveroo spin-off that forces you to watch ads held up by your delivery driver in lieu of payment. Another – an app that changes the words on a website in real-time to mess with users – was the ember that first sparked the idea for Fluent, a free extension on Google’s Chrome browser that helps you learn languages by surfing the web.

After realising they could be harbouring a winning idea, Mr Dove and his friends – Olga Sanchis, Yaniv Silberman and Ara Ghougassian – banded together as co-founders to enter a two-day hackathon where they built a minimum viable product. The early version worked by scanning the text of websites users were on and translating select words into the language they were trying to learn.

“By the end of the hackathon, people were telling us they would pay for Fluent if it was a real product. That’s when we knew we had to go all in,” he says.

Fluent launched earlier this year, just as the EdTech space was beginning to shake off years of neglect. The shift to remote learning has played a large part in pulling e-learning initiatives to the forefront of where venture capital is being deployed, with private investors pumping $1.68 billion into EdTech companies so far this year, according to TechCrunch. Online learning platform Coursera also raised $510 million after its float on the New York Stock Exchange in March valued the company at $4.3bn.

As a Canadian start-up outside the reach of Silicon Valley, Mr Dove and his co-founders had to get creative to gain early traction. The team’s first 1,000 users came off the back of a semi-viral tweet that Mr Ghougassian – Fluent’s self-described ‘chief cheerleader’ – sent out on a whim in May last year aimed at the language learning app Duolingo saying it was gunning for the popular language learning app.

What followed was a steady flow of capital from angel investors who brought more than just cash to the table. “A lot of our angels are people who’ve scaled start-ups before, so it feels like we’re getting paid to learn from them,” Mr Dove says. “Like an inverse MBA.”

Now, with over 7,000 users and an ambitious roadmap, the Fluent team has no shortage of wisdom to draw on. Mr Dove says what differentiates Fluent in an overcrowded market worth almost $21.2bn, according to a study by Meticulous Research, is its mission to flip the language learning model on its head.

Most language learning apps on the market today rely on gamification, he says. Gamification can be fun, with meme-type mascots, progress bars and streaks creating the feeling of playing a more productive variant of Angry Birds that nudges you towards bilingualism.

Fluent's focus is on developing a high-quality, embedded learning experience that etches deeper than gamification and quick-wins, Mr Dove says. As a testament to this, giving users the chance to repeatedly test their mastery of words in the context of what they’re doing is just as core to the Fluent experience – and for Mr Dove, more powerful – as learning new words is.

In the future, we want to be able to auto-dub video content on Netflix, or even say to users – you should listen to this French song on Spotify because you'll be able to understand 80 per cent of the words

The Fluent team is also taking a deliberately slow-burn approach to introducing new languages beyond their current offering of French, Spanish and (soon) Italian.

Like Grammarly and Honey, Fluent exists solely in the realm of Chrome extensions – which is a deliberate strategy.

“You can access everything through Chrome: Spotify, Netflix, emails, articles,” Mr Dove says. “In the future, we want to be able to auto-dub video content on Netflix, or even say to users – you should listen to this French song on Spotify because you’ll be able to understand 80 per cent of the words.”

Chrome should therefore act as a built-in gateway that opens the door to other mediums in the future, he says. “If we do our job right, our users will wake up one day, their entire (digital) lives will be in the language they’re learning, and they won’t even bat an eyelid.”

For now, though, Mr Dove is still excited by the small wins.

“The other day I saw the word ‘rifle’ in French etched on the side of a building, and that’s a word I learnt on Fluent two days prior. It felt so incredible, I almost jumped up and down.”