500 million children learning earlier: the Lingumi Mission

Introducing our mission to make learning critical skills affordable and effective in early childhood

Lingumi families in Taipei, November 2018

When I was 22, I spent a year teaching English to children aged 6 and 7 in classrooms in Russia and Italy. Every day, I gave groups of 20 children their first ever English lessons.

It was hard for me, and for the children. Why? Because beginning English at the age of 6 or 7 is hard. They got 2 hours a week of English lessons (not enough exposure), in a big group (too many people), without any previous foundation in the language. The worst part is that they were beginning after the ‘critical period’ of 2–6 years. In scientific terms, primary school is very late to begin learning English.

These children should have been arriving in my classroom with an existing foundation in English, so they could improve their English at school, not start learning it. There was, and is, no way to get that foundation affordably.

Rather than frustrated, I felt excited: I saw a massive opportunity for category creation within the education industry. This is the story of how we at Lingumi are working to create that category.

The Starting Point

Source: EF EPI 2018

We’ve started with what we consider the keystone skill: understanding and speaking English. English will be the defining socio-economic skill for the 500 million 2–6 year olds in the world for whom English is not a first language.

Fluent English speakers earn 400% more, on average, than a non-English speaker. Yet the global average English level is too low for widespread professional use.

As machines get better and more widely used for manual work, more and more humans move into the increasingly competitive ‘service layer’ of work. In a global economy, this service layer is conducted in English. There’s a fairly invidious legacy behind why English is that language, but it’s not going to change.

Global average English proficiency by continent. Source: EF EPI 2018

On the 2018 EF English Proficiency Index, the global average of 54/100 falls far below the CEFR B2+ level of English that facilitates basic professional communication. What’s more, 20 year-olds performed only 4 points better than learners of 40+, a staggeringly small increase in English levels in two decades of educational change. Consequently, employers face talent bottlenecks, and have to pay above-market prices for English speaking staff.

Despite knowing about this life-defining economic delta, we allow hundreds of millions of children to start primary school each year without a foundation level of English. The net global GDP losses are incalculably large, but the opportunity is equally enormous.

The problem is bigger than English

It’s not just English — foundational skills like language, literacy, numeracy, and computational thinking need to be learned in early childhood. Want some numbers?

  • In the UK, 28% of 4–5 year olds lack the communicative skills they require for their nursery year.
  • About 9% of the adult US population read and write at third-grade level or below.
  • When it comes to computational thinking, we’re facing an insurmountable skills gap: only 12% of UK schoolchildren are taking a computer science GCSE.

…and those are from two of the world’s richest economies. The global problem is far bigger.

The way we’re educating children in foundational skills sets them up to fail. The learning process begins at primary school, just as the brain starts to become less absorbent of new information. Teaching is carried out at a low-frequency in large, static group formats. And that’s just for the lucky ones, born into a decent national education system. As a result, we spend our secondary school and adult years either failing to meet our potential, or playing catch-up at great expense, paying for remedial services like courses or tutoring. That doesn’t scale.

The only viable way to create these foundations is in the home. The early years ‘home learning environment’ is the richest educational experience a child will ever receive. Parents’ decisions and behaviours have an outsized effect on their children’s development: like it or not, they are their children’s first and most important teachers. The global approach to education has, since the emergence of the classroom, systematically neglected this, gearing towards mass delivery of education in classrooms — a centrally-controllable process — while ignoring the potency of the pre-school period to build foundational knowledge.

Low levels in these foundations, often called ‘school readiness’, creates staggering costs for education systems as over-stretched teachers try to catch children up to where they should be by that point, rather than governments and societies taking a more distributed approach that trains parents to develop skills in the home.

The Opportunity

In my classrooms, I saw this problem, and opportunity, first hand.

Upon returning to Oxford, I began researching whether a parent, who can’t speak English, could teach their child a foundational level in English before they reach six years old, if they had the right tools. It’s a psycholinguistic challenge that the research world is yet to really address. To achieve this foundation right now (CEFR pre-A1, to get technical), a 4 year old could attend a British Council language class, a bilingual kindergarten, or have a private teacher visit them at home. All of those cost well over €1000 per year. This is unaffordable for all but the 1%.

The academics who advised me said, ‘it’s possible’. That’s our starting point at Lingumi. We’re making it possible for a non-English speaking family to get a child to a measurable foundation level in English, and reducing the cost of that service by 90%.

Source: ‘Rethinking the Brain’, Rima Shore

Of the 7,177 Lingumi parents I personally spoke to using our customer support system in 2018, parents often ask me if starting English would confuse their child (it won’t!) or create unhealthy ‘learning pressure’ (not if done right!). We consistently underestimate the power of the infant brain. The brain of a 2 year old has over one hundred trillion synapses, half of which get ‘pruned’ away as we leave early and move into adolescence. Despite that, children globally begin learning foundational language, literacy, and computational skills at 2–6 years old.

We are waking up to this. The UK government is putting a focus on the home learning environment, but that’s a slow-moving single-nation policy that’ll take years to manifest. And in that time, this generation of 500 million will have missed their critical window.

We need to move from ‘start in the classroom’ to ‘start at home’ as the global standard for education. For the 500 million children under 6 in the world right now, for whom English is not a first language, that means starting English now. And this is not to reject the oft-quoted ‘power of play’ — play is the behavioural and educational medium that best suits the pre-school brain. At Lingumi, we leverage that medium to deliver foundational education at scale.

The only way to do this is by working with parents. The good news is that technology and research help us there. We’re in a decade where over half of the world has access to internet, and more than 40% to a smart device. The rise of digitally native parents with technology in the home is opening an opportunity to create a new class of ‘educator parents’ using a new class of tools and platforms. Right now we’re early in the adoption curve, but that’s speeding up, globally, at an individual and a governmental level. It’s going to make a very big impact and open a very big market.

That’s why we’re building Lingumi

At Lingumi, our mission is to make learning critical skills affordable and effective in early childhood. Our starting point is unlocking spoken and receptive English for kids aged 2–6, up to a foundational level (CEFR pre-A1). At the moment, there are no demonstrably effective, affordable solutions that can achieve this at scale. The market, though, is growing fast.

In two years, the number of families who’ve started English with their kids with Lingumi has grown from 5 test families in Germany, to over 50,000 all around the world. This year we’re launching in China, the world’s largest market of English learners (and arguably the most mature online payments market, too).

Over three years of research and development, we’ve built a platform that makes it effective, affordable, and fun for children to achieve a foundation in receptive English before they turn 6. This month, we’re releasing our new, research-driven curriculum, aimed at driving results faster, and at a lower cost, than any existing solution. Along with it, we’re increasing the measurability of spoken English using automated voice assessment, and are getting closer to performing the industry’s first verifiable integrated assessments of second language development in pre-schoolers.

This is very much ‘Day 1’ for us. Right now we’re 0.05% of the way to our goal of 500 million kids, and spoken and receptive English is just the beginning. But we already have a committed, highly retentive global learning community achieving some staggering early results. Here’s Thomas, who has used Lingumi for about 9 months and had had no prior English lessons, practising a Lingumi Curriculum Goal:

This isn’t a one-off. You can see other customers’ results right here on our website, and we’re working on our first publishable research outcomes. Contact me if you’d like a preview of those, or you’re an academic and want to work with our unique dataset.

As part of our commitment to delivering outcomes to families at low cost, we’re guaranteeing their progress. Too much of ‘edtech’ is big promises without any results: our guarantee is 100% transparent about our anticipated outcomes, and required input by each family. For families beginning the Lingumi Curriculum from January 2019, we’re offering a full refund if they don’t meet our predicted language outcomes after the first 3 months with the Curriculum. If you have relatives with non-English speaking 2–6 year olds, tell them to give it a go.

Join the Mission

We’re building the educational platform that powers pre-school learning outcomes for every child. We’re already providing the tools to make that happen for English. But we won’t stop there. Write to us if you’d like to join the mission to to make learning critical skills affordable and effective for every child, before they reach primary school.

Toby with some Lingumi learners at a family event in Taipei

— Toby