Keith Phillips of realLINGUA: “Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”

So, looking around at the language-learning landscape, we realized that there are a lot of traditional-based options rooted in dictionary/grammar type approaches. We’ve all been there — recite this list of fruit from memory and conjugate these three irregular verbs. And language-learners’ reactions to this? As a former language instructor, I’ve heard it all — daunting, boring, overwhelming, difficult, […]

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So, looking around at the language-learning landscape, we realized that there are a lot of traditional-based options rooted in dictionary/grammar type approaches. We’ve all been there — recite this list of fruit from memory and conjugate these three irregular verbs. And language-learners’ reactions to this? As a former language instructor, I’ve heard it all — daunting, boring, overwhelming, difficult, pointless, etc., etc. I asked a lot of language students over the years what they wanted in a language-learning solution, and the vast majority of them had the same response — authentic language that teaches you how to really speak the language. For me, this was a no-brainer because I knew I already had the solution — the one that I had come up with as a junior in college.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Phillips.

Keith is a former college prof turned EdTech entrepreneur and AI innovator. He taught French and Spanish for 21+ years and is now leading a language-learning startup that helps people learn to speak like a native speaker. He and his team were recently awarded a grant to pursue a patent for a conversational AI designed specifically for language-learning.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

So, after 4 years of studying Spanish in high school with traditional grammar/dictionary methods, I still couldn’t say anything remotely comprehensible. And trying to speak to Rosario, the Spanish exchange student from Madrid that was visiting my high school with her classmates confirmed this with stark clarity. Of course, I definitely knew some Spanish and even how to say some random things (think: «El sol es Amarillo.»). But I didn’t know how to speak the language.

My breakthrough came in college when I studied abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca, in Spain. Upon arrival, I still couldn’t speak much — still stumbling over my own words. It was super-late when my new roommate and I finally arrived at our host family’s home after 10+ hours of travel. The host father was a night owl, and so he was very eager to chat us up. My brain was fried, but during our conversation (and in between shots of something or other that he continued to pour!) I kept hearing him say «vale», which wasn’t something I had run across before. Roughly translated it means “okay” or even “yeah”. I was so tired I just started saying it after everything he said. And, amazingly, he actually started speaking faster and using more slang with me, like I was another native-speaker.

Then it dawned on me — students from the U.S. that he had met previously never used the word «vale» (it’s actually from the Spanish dialect spoken primarily in Spain — i.e. Castellano). So, by using it increased the conversation’s inherent comfort level and his willingness to continue speaking with me. The next day I decided that I was going to do more of this linguistic mirroring to see if people would treat me more like a native-speaker and use more authentic language at speed with me, a non-native-speaker. After another couple of days, my assumptions were completely validated. I realized that if I said things in the same ways that the locals did, they understood me and conversations got longer and longer, and my language skills got deeper and deeper. To really zero in, I participated in several language exchanges — «intercambios» — with Spanish university students wanting to practice their English.

This strategy I was developing on the fly was exactly what young children do when learning their first language: say what everyone around you is saying and continue building upon it. There were still landlines back then, so one day when I called my friend from California who was also studying in Salamanca and living with another Spanish host family, the host mother answered. She and I talked for a bit, I explained who I was, and I asked for Stephanie (all in Spanish). She then took the phone away from her ear and said to my friend (in Spanish, of course!): «Estefanía, ¿conoces a un chico español que se llama ‘Keith’? Hay un chico español en el teléfono que está pidiendo hablar contigo.» “Wow!”, I thought to myself, “she actually thinks I’m Spanish!”

My solution worked so well that I went from fumbling around the language to near flawless speaking ability in just 4 weeks. When I got back to the States, I felt a real calling to share this “magical formula” that I had developed with others. So, I decided to scale the language-learning solution I came up with and went on to teach French and Spanish for 21+ years at the college level. I felt an even deeper calling several years ago to scale things even further and I’m now leading a language-learning startup.

While living in France with my family a few years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to learn more about the future of AI from some of the leading minds in the field. I got a vision for how AI could positively impact education and beyond. I knew I wanted to be a part of shaping that exciting future as well. My team and I were recently awarded a grant to pursue a patent for a conversational AI that my company is developing specifically for language-learning. Very exciting stuff — part of the reason I can’t wait to wake up and get to work each day!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

So, looking around at the language-learning landscape, we realized that there are a lot of traditional-based options rooted in dictionary/grammar type approaches. We’ve all been there — recite this list of fruit from memory and conjugate these three irregular verbs. And language-learners’ reactions to this? As a former language instructor, I’ve heard it all — daunting, boring, overwhelming, difficult, pointless, etc., etc. I asked a lot of language students over the years what they wanted in a language-learning solution, and the vast majority of them had the same response — authentic language that teaches you how to really speak the language. For me, this was a no-brainer because I knew I already had the solution — the one that I had come up with as a junior in college. I also knew that I wanted to reach as many people as possible with my solution. So, while I enjoyed classroom teaching immensely, I knew I was being called to scale my “founder solved their own problem” to the widest audience possible, and thus realLINGUA was born.

Ours is a truly natural approach that eliminates the need to memorize a dictionary’s worth of vocabulary or regurgitate grammatical rules ad nauseam when trying to learn another language. We deliver immersive foreign language-learning via an innovative patent-pending approach in a self-directed learning app. Rooted in descriptive linguistics and implicit learning, we help people make a quantum leap in their language-learning by exposing them to high-frequency language from actual native-speaker conversations. It’s the language as it’s really used everyday — unscripted, in-context, at-speed — making our approach as close to the way humans naturally learn language as possible! So, while it’s definitely disruptive, it’s really a back to basics approach that seeks to help the learner absorb the language in much the same way we all learned our first language.

We also see a huge opportunity to help learners practice their new language skills as they continue to level-up while using our platform. Obviously one of the best ways to do this is through conversation practice with another speaker, preferably a native speaker. And there are plenty of options out there to do this with a fellow human, but hardly any options at all that leverage the amazing potential of artificial intelligence. That, and we’ve heard from countless learners that 1-on-1 language practice offerings can be fraught with issues. This is where our next disruption comes in — say bonjour to the future of language-learning, and say adios to all of those creepy tinder-ish “language exchange” apps that feel more like a dating site than language-learning.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In realLINGUA’s very early days, I entered a pitch competition to test the waters with my new idea. I had 10 minutes to do my pitch and I literally had no idea what I was doing. But, because of my teaching and presentation experience in the college classroom, I thought “no problem, I got this all day long!”. So, I didn’t do any research on how to put a pitch deck together or what talking points to focus on. I just decided to go for it. And it was a disaster. My deck was 7 slides and completely disjointed, not focused on the business I was creating but really just more of a kitschy infomercial loosely focused on the concept. I wrote up a script (my talking points) that was over 3,000 words long! Given that the average person can say roughly 150 words per minute, there was no way I would have been able to cram all of that into a 10-minute pitch.

Like I said, it was a disaster! But there were two saving graces, looking back on it now. First, I learned a ton from the experience. The biggest takeaway, learning-wise, was that there is very little “I’m just going to wing it” for the entrepreneur. When I was younger, I was in scouts and I now take the scouting motto very much to heart: Be prepared. Applies to everything an entrepreneur does. You always have to prepare and be prepared. And it sounds like those are the same thing, but there’s an important nuance. I learned that forcing myself to prepare, for a presentation for example, even if I thought I was good to go, was a very effective way to get super-solid on things. Point is that you have to do the work. Only then are you really, truly prepared. Second, the panel of business experts to whom I was pitching that day were very gracious. 30 seconds into my pitch they knew it was a disaster too. I could see it in their eyes. But I think they saw my zeal and determination and they all thought “okay, we’ve all been here”. They didn’t destroy me in the Q&A after my presentation (thankfully!). They actually asked very good questions that caused me to sharpen my focus and continue to test my assumptions, ultimately helping move the startup out of the idea phase and into product development and beyond.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I like to think that a really good mentor is someone who can kick your butt and give you a hug at the same time, figuratively speaking. As an entrepreneur you’re jumping off of a cliff and building a disruptive parachute on the way down, so a little (okay, a lot!) of help along the way is definitely necessary. And you yourself know that you didn’t jump off of that cliff with reckless abandon, but rather because you knew that you had an idea for the greatest parachute ever.

A really great mentor realizes that you’ve got what it takes to make things happen, but also has the good sense to expose the flaws (in the idea, the plan, the product, your professional skillset, etc.) all along the way. Case in point, a good friend and great mentor to me early on, Bryan Taylor of EduGuide, had all kinds of great advice, battle-tested from his own entrepreneurial experiences. But the one thing that really stands out is his advice on pricing and freemium product positioning in the language-learning space. It took a while for all of that to sink in, but that advice from a while back is exactly what the company is using right now. Thanks, Bry!

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Okay, so I started realLINGUA because I realized that “tried-and-true” language-learning methods — dictionary/grammar approaches — despite having been used for centuries, were just not working. My own language-learning experiences revealed this to me, and my language-teaching experiences confirmed that mine was by no means an isolated problem. Nearly everyone I talked to felt the same way. And that’s exactly when being disruptive is a very positive thing because you’re helping to solve a real problem and alleviate a lot of pain for a lot of people.

That’s really what entrepreneurs are out to do — be disruptively helpful, in the best sense of the term. Language-learning is stuck with tired, old approaches that are overwhelming and ineffective. Being disruptive with a fresh approach based on natural language-learning is a very positive thing in this case. Past attempts to disrupt in language-learning have indeed been successful (in some senses of the word), but not really all that helpful to the learner. Rosetta Stone, Babbel, Duolingo and countless others have really just dressed up those old, ineffective language-learning approaches in shiny packaging and overly-gamified apps. So, using technology in this way was certainly disruptive to be sure, but not actually very positive from a learning perspective. In essence, there were disruptions, yes, but they didn’t solve real problems or alleviate actual pain. Thus, they weren’t positive disruptions.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. “Do the work.” -Steven Pressfield

Steve is a former U.S. Marine, so he knows a thing or two about getting things done. He’s written several books on personal and professional performance and the overall takeaway for me was the quote above, from one of his books of the same title — Do The Work. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I had a pretty hard time early on with just moving things forward because I was easily paralyzed by not knowing exactly what to do or when. So, one day I had had enough and shouted into the air (it was just me in my office!): “Screw it! Do the work!” I took it to mean just do anything, something, whatever needs to be done. Later that day, I crafted the job announcement that helped realLINGUA find our first linguist partners, a move that ultimately led to the product we have today and the customers and sales we’ve started getting as a result of it.

2. “…keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” -Rudyard Kipling

This is part of a line from Kipling’s poem, If-, which in my opinion is one of the best pieces of poetry ever written. It’s written in the form of parental advice to the poet’s son, John. I stumbled upon it when I was a teenager, and I’ve always imagined that it was something my dad had written for me. Some of the places I’ve worked at in the past were extremely toxic environments, and this line was especially meaningful to me because it helped me to keep my cool and push through some pretty difficult situations. Ultimately, this enabled me to make a life-changing transition (leaving teaching to go all-in with realLINGUA) with dignity and grace. It was admittedly a little scary, but it was the best move I ever made.

3. “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources currently controlled.” -Howard H. Stevenson

I have this posted in my office, and in my opinion, this is the north star that should guide every entrepreneur. Dr. Stevenson is a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. I read an article that mentioned this quote about a year and a half into my startup journey. What I realized was that I was already doing this, the idea being that an entrepreneur’s principal role is to bring oftentimes disparate and overlooked resources together in ways that others haven’t thought of or simply aren’t willing to attempt in order to provide innovative value to the consumer. I bootstrapped my startup, so resources were obviously very limited. This forces you to use everything at your disposal to continue to move things forward. A great example of this was how we were able to find some of our first native-speaker linguists. Essentially, I used my personal and professional networks to connect with two native-speakers of French that were living in the same town. We had no sound studio or anything like that, so we got creative with our first content capture recordings — high-quality, low-cost podcast mic sets purchased online that we provided for recording in the linguists’ own homes. We would never have been able to afford voice actors, studio time, talent management, etc. — that would have ended us before we even began. But getting creative within the existing resource constraints, we were able to get our first product off the ground and gain some of the biggest supporters in our initial linguists.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Based on my work in both academia and artificial intelligence, I think we’re going to see massive positive gains as education completely transforms due to the use of AI, especially through the use of chatbots (i.e. conversational AI or conversational agents) in distance learning.

Much of what we already think about when we think about AI is related to “cognitive offloading”. That is, AI that helps us do heavy-lifting in the thinking, data gathering, and information analysis departments. However, and perhaps even more interesting, is what AI will do to help us as humans learn better, faster, and more effectively; thereby in many ways helping us to do more heavy-lifting type thinking and also expanding our empathetic capabilities as humans. These two things, increased intellectual ability and expanded empathetic capability are, by the way, the two major raisons d’être of any educational system.

One of the big reasons focusing on AI is so important is because it’s becoming more and more commonplace (and will continue to do so, as Gartner predicts). But, and perhaps most importantly, the other big reason is that we are looking at something that will change the future of humanity as we head into the fourth industrial revolution. We have an unprecedented opportunity to be part of shaping history. Part of that is getting AI right the first time, because as most experts agree, there may not be a second time as AI develops and changes in ways we can’t even imagine right now. This is the existential risk part of the equation, but really, as entrepreneurs everywhere know, it’s a golden opportunity to knock it out of the park, to create a super-intelligent thinker/learner grounded in empathetic benevolence that will have an outsize positive and persistent impact on humanity.

There are many, many applications and possibilities that bring conversational pedagogy, adaptive learning, and intelligent tutoring systems together to create AI that has the actual ability to teach others. I’m really, really excited about what realLINGUA is doing — developing a conversational AI designed specifically for language-learning. Based on an algorithmic cognitive processor that I designed and rooted in empathetic benevolence and flow science learning principles, our AI will use true learning ability and gentle corrections to help the learner practice their listening and speaking skills as effectively as possible. This more human touch coupled with actual learning ability is where conversational AI, and AI in general, is headed. I’m super-excited to be a part of it!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Honestly, at any given time I have between 10–15 books that I’m reading — mostly on my nightstand. I love reading and I think it’s one of the best ways to constantly be learning (full disclosure: I have 2000+ books in our home libraries!). One that really resonates lately is A Human Algorithm, by Flynn Coleman. Flynn really captures the essence of why it’s so important to get AI right, especially in light of its enormous potential positive impact on humankind and also its inherent existential risks. One of the things that really stuck out was what I took as an admonishment to build empathy into AI. At the very end of the book, she says: “I am confident that in our quest to build a digital soul, we will find our own.” That’s so powerful and I believe that it may be one of the most important things that humankind has ever done.

I’ve also been reading a lot lately by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis. I really resonate with their observations on the future, especially from a “the future is coming fast” perspective. I also really resonate with Steven’s work with flow state and his efforts to spread that crucially important message. One thing that stands out in all of that reading is Steven’s book, Last Tango in Cyberspace. I probably tend to gravitate towards non-fiction, but this is a great fiction read. I don’t know if he’s heard this before, but I actually feel like I could be the protagonist!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never try. Never fail. Never succeed.” -my sons Ethan, Liam, and Gavin Phillips

When I was first starting out, my wife helped me put together what turned out to be a very nice “headquarters” office for the company (only me at the time!) in the basement of our home at the time in East Lansing, Michigan. When we finished, we gave our 3 young boys a “tour”. I didn’t expect it, but they were so excited to see me, their dad, take this huge leap into the unknown. Showing them the new office really drove things home for them. Anticipating all of the great experiences to come, they started reflecting on what it was going to take to be successful. I admitted that I was a bit nervous, but that I had to try. Our oldest son, Ethan, gently reminded me that that was the important thing at that time — to try. Our youngest son, Gavin, who was only 3 at the time, said “yeah, dad, try!”.

I assured them that was exactly what I was going to do. Then our middle son, Liam, asked what would happen if things didn’t work out and I said something along the lines of, “Well, we’ll dust ourselves off and keep going. That’s the key — you have to keep going. But remember, you can’t succeed unless you try.” The whole room went quiet and it actually seemed like time stopped for a few moments. He reflected on my response for a moment and then said “Never try. Never fail. Never succeed.” — he was 7 years old at the time! And then his two brothers, Ethan and Gavin, said it with him a couple more times. A real pep talk before going into battle. From these 3 young boys! It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’ve got the quote hanging up in my office to this day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I really believe that the conversational AI we’re developing could become the foreign language teacher of the future. It also has the potential to revolutionize education on a broader scale as well as shape and make history through true empathetically benevolent super-intelligence (“smart with a soul”) as we move into the fourth age. Education is often called a “helping” profession, and I want to do something to help solve what U.N. Secretary General Guterres recently called a “general catastrophe” in education, through the widening of our AI’s application to education at all levels, to the benefit of people worldwide.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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