Interview with Victor Santos, Founder and CEO of Linguacious LLC.

1. Please tell me a bit about your academic background.

My entire education has been in the field of Linguistics. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), during which

I had a strong focus on syntax and indigenous languages. Then, I received a scholarship from the European Union to do a binational Master’s degree in Computational Linguistics in Germany (University of Saarland) and in the Netherlands (University of Groningen). After getting my Master’s, I moved to the USA to do my PhD in Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University, with a strong focus on Language Assessment/Testing.

2. Please tell me a bit about your professional background.

Before moving to Europe for my Master’s program, I taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 6 years in Brazil. Then, during my PhD program, I interned with five different language learning or language testing companies in the USA and abroad, including language learning companies such as Mango Languages and Language Testing Companies such as SLTI and Michigan Language Assessment.

After my PhD, I got a position as Director of Assessment and Research with Avant Assessment, a major language testing company in the USA.

Finally, about 4 years ago, I founded my own company, called Linguacious®. At Linguacious, I develop innovative language learning flashcard games and children’s picture books in over 30 different languages, including major world languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Italian, but also many less-commonly-taught languages such as Kurdish, Welsh, Hawaiian, Yup’ik, Basque, Irish Gaelic, Swedish, Galician, and others. The materials I have produced with Linguacious have already won over 12 different awards. It makes me very happy to know they are benefiting so many people around the world.

3. What gave you the idea to create interactive flashcards and children’s books?

As for the flashcards, the initial idea came from my own difficulty in finding suitable physical materials in Portuguese (my native language) to use with my son when he was born. I now have two children (my son is 4 years old and my daughter is 2 years old) and we are a multicultural and multilingual family. My wife and I have always spoken to our kids in our native languages (Russian and Portuguese, respectively) and when my son turned 1, I tried to find vocabulary flashcards in Portuguese to use with him to help him with language acquisition.

After carefully analyzing the market and what was available, I was actually quite disappointed. The types of flashcards I found available fell short of what I, as a language educator and professional linguist, would like to see in a vocabulary flashcard game. For example, the majority of flashcards featured both the image and the word in the target language on the front side of the card, which makes it much harder for children of reading ability to practice recalling the word (productive knowledge) themselves based on the image, since the word they need to recall is right there in front of their eyes! In addition to this simple layout issue, the vocabulary games I came across in my research were just not fun enough, since kids could not play games with them. As a previous language teacher, I knew that kids don’t usually care about something unless it’s made fun for them. Last, I wanted a listening component to be part of the cards as well. None of the flashcards in the market featured audio pronunciation of each words. Some of them featured written phonetic pronunciation of each word using the English alphabet, which, in my opinion, can do more harm than good when it comes to acquiring correct pronunciation, especially in languages with sounds that cannot be presented by English letters.

 So I thought: wouldn’t it be cool if kids could access audio of each word by a native speaker of each language right from each card? I was familiar with QR codes and thought it would be nice to have a QR code on each card that kids could scan using a common cell phone and a very simply app (point and listen) to pronounce each word for them.

Knowing what I wanted to achieve, I got down to work and started developing several prototypes of the cards and testing them out with my son and other children. From the beginning, the prototypes would allow kids to play various games to practice Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking independently, all of which are important skills to practice when learning a language, although naturally Reading and Writing would only be introduced when children are a bit older.

Five months later, the first set of Portuguese flashcards (Animals) that fulfilled all the requirements for what I thought a good vocabulary flashcard game should be was born.

Portuguese flashcards

When I started showing the first flashcards I created to other parents who were also passing their languages to their children, I started getting requests to develop them in other languages. In fact, many parents struggle to find good quality materials in other languages to use with their kids, even here in the USA. That’s when I knew there was a business opportunity there as well.

Fast-forward 4 years, we now offer our flashcards in over 30 different languages and in 5 different topics, such as Animals, Around the Home, Foods and Drinks, Alphabet, and Verbs & Phrases.

Yup'ik Cards

An image of the Linguacious® vocabulary flashcard game Around the Home in the Yup’ik (Yugtun) language, produced in partnership with the Anchorage School District (Alaska).

As for the children’s picture books published by Linguacious, it’s a more recent project. In addition to the cards, which are more useful at the very early stages of acquiring a language, when kids are still at the single-word or perhaps phrase level, I wanted to also give them the opportunity to be exposed to richer input in their languages. I have always loved reading and by this time my daughter had already been born, which means I was reading a lot of books in Portuguese to my kids at home. I decided then to start writing a children’s book series called Little Polyglot Adventures, which would provide that richer input in various languages to children. To this point, three books have been published in the series and the series has won over 7 book awards and been translated into over 19 languages. The books in the series are available in either monolingual or bilingual editions and all books in the series features words in additional languages so that kids can pick up some new words in other languages here and there. One of the main goals of the series, in addition to its linguistic goal of providing rich input in the language, is to show kids the value of speaking other languages, of multiculturalism, and of respecting cultural, racial, and geographical differences.

Book 1 (Dylan’s Birthday Present) in the Little Polyglot Adventures series. Bilingual English – Welsh version.

Book 2 (A Wild Day at the Zoo) in the Little Polyglot Adventures series. Monolingual Basque (Euskara) version.

4. What sort of research or pedagogical basis did you consider when creating your flashcards and books?

When creating the flashcards, I relied on my knowledge of Applied Linguistics as an Applied Linguist myself but also consulted with others in the fields of Language Learning and Bilingual Education.

For the flashcards, for example, I knew that reading, listening, speaking, and writing were skills that should be practiced with the cards independently. That informed the design of the cards and where each little piece of information (image, spelling of the word, QR code) would go in order to allow kids to practice each of these four skills separately through the games we propose for the cards. Research in vocabulary learning dealing with active recall, the ability to remember a word in a language without being provided with a small set of possible choices, was also an important foundation in developing the flashcards.

For the books, the decision to publish them in both monolingual and bilingual version came from the understanding that these two versions cater to different end users. For example, parallel bilingual texts can help boost language learning, especially in the earlier stages of acquisition, and that informed out decision to have the two languages side by side after each groups of sentences, instead of having the two languages show up on different pages in the bilingual versions.

Sample page from the bilingual English – Russian edition of Book 2 in the Little Polyglot Series (A Wild Day at the Zoo)

And just as with the flaschards, instead of providing phonetic spelling of the foreign words in other languages that we introduce in the book every now and then, we offer instead a simple translation of the word as a footnote, and readers can access our website to actually listen to a native speaker of the language pronouncing the foreign word.

Sample page from the monolingual Italian edition of Book 2 in the Little Polyglot Series (A Wild Day at the Zoo). The blue word (in Spanish) has a footnote translation but readers can go to the Linguacious website to hear the pronunciation of the word if they would like.

5. How would you like to see your products evolve in the future?

I would love to see our flashcards and children’s books developed in a much larger number of languages, including more endangered languages. Some people in the Yup’ik community, for example, have told me that our books are not only a resource for rich language input but they actually work as language documentation as well, since the number of resources in Yup’ik (with only about 10,000 estimated speakers left) is quite small. We are currently in talks with a foreign rights agency to represent our books abroad to other publishers who may be interested in publishing our books under their own imprints in their own countries and languages.

I would also love to be able to record audiobook version of all our children’s books (some already have audiobooks) and make the audio available directly from the books (with no reliance on an Internet connection) in order to bring a more interactive experience to children and parents using our books.

Lastly, I would love to develop new products, especially toys, that help kids learn languages.

6. Are there any other activities or games that your company is currently working on?

Not at the moment. I am quite focused on working on my writing skills as an author at the moment and writing more books that we can publish into more and more languages.

7. Is there anything else you would like us to know?

I would just like to thank the National Museum of Language for what you do. I love your webinars and learn quite a bit from them. I am also fond of the Multilingual Digital Storytelling project and would love to see more and more stories being added in more and more languages. In fact, I will try to add one of our own children’s book to the collection sometime soon. If anyone has a request for a given language we offer our books in and especially if they are a native speaker who could record it, please do get in touch with me by all means through the email below or our website.

Lastly, I want to congratulate all of us here who understand and value the importance of all languages and who advocate for a more linguistically and culturally diverse world.