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Michael Shangkuan Of Lingoda: 5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Sharpen your ability to connect with others in a deep and personal way by understanding more of their culture and history. Learn about their circumstances, be empathetic towards them and understand their backgrounds and why they might behave the way they do. Language learning is actually a great tool to become more empathetic as you learn not only about grammar and syntax but also about cultures and customs across the world.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’, I had the pleasure to interview Mike Shangkuan.

Mike Shangkuan is an EdTech entrepreneur, fitness fanatic, and polyglot, speaking six languages — English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese. As a pioneer in language learning, he is the CEO of Lingoda GmbH, Europe’s leading online language school, where he is in charge of the company’s strategy and daily business. He is also a former natural bodybuilder and competed at several international competitions. He is a graduate of Yale University and he holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I was born and raised in the US, my parents had emigrated to the States from Taiwan. In school, I already became interested in learning languages — taking French in school and adding Chinese and Japanese classes to my weekend schedule.

Professionally, I always felt that I needed to be the “good Chinese son.” I was supposed to be good at physics and math, but instead I liked my French class the most. I studied economics at Yale University and completed my MBA at Harvard Business School. I then began my professional career at Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble. What ultimately led me to Lingoda was my previous position in San Diego, where I was the CEO of Terra Education, a B-corp offering life-changing service learning summer programs to teens in Africa, South America and Asia for twelve years.

I’ve always been interested in learning languages, traveling and diving deep into new cultures. To date, I’ve lived in six different countries across four continents and speak six languages: English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese. Today, I’m the CEO of Lingoda, a leading online language school, which also makes me the first Asian-American to be the CEO of a German company.

On a different note, I’m also a former natural bodybuilder and have competed at several international competitions. I bring this up because it’s not actually that different from learning languages. To compete as a bodybuilder, you have to develop consistent, daily habits and train with a good teacher to achieve your goals, and not about talent.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I’ve lived in eight countries across North & South America, Europe, and Asia and been immersed in cultures and languages at opposite ends of the spectrum. Learning the language in those eight countries has played a key role in helping me better understand the nuances of the culture and immerse myself in the society. What is normal in one culture is awkward in the other.

Take Japan and Mexico, for example. I had lived and studied in both countries. In Japan, you don’t kiss or touch, even your parents. You bow. The greater respect you want to show, the deeper and longer your bow. I, of course, did not know that. So, when I first met my host family, I went around, extended my hand to shake and reached over to hug them. Each of them moved back, confusion in their eyes. The Grandmother was horrified. A few years later, I studied and worked in Mexico. My colleagues at work were equally horrified; I learned they were all gossiping about me and how rude I was because every morning and night, when I came and left the office, I did not go around the room and greet each colleague with a kiss and say “goodbye” with a final kiss for the day. I just went straight to my desk, turned on my computer, and started typing.

Now I run a German-based company. German culture is yet again different from Japanese, Mexican, and American. And we have colleagues from over 35 countries and cultures. One word of caution — never be late to a meeting with Germans.

You might ask, if you are interacting with a different culture or even living in another country, what can you do to overcome these challenges?

First, I wouldn’t worry about making mistakes. You WILL commit cultural faux pas.

Second, it’s much more important you develop a cultural awareness and curiosity of what your culture is and how the culture could be different. I call this developing your cultural IQ. A great way to develop your cultural IQ is to learn the language. Even some basic phrases and understanding of the grammatical structure reveals how a culture operates. Moreover those interactions will bring you closer together, when you show respect for that culture by starting the conversation in that culture.

Third, and I am especially addressing English-native speakers here, if the default language is English, speak slowly, enunciate, and use simple words. No idioms. If you must use idioms or a more complicated word, go back and explain what it is. Pay attention if people look confused. That is yet another reason to learn a second language. Those who do are much more empathetic in their cross-cultural interactions. I can recommend the book “The Language of Global Success” by Tsedal Neeley, a Professor at Harvard Business School.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

We can also take “Culture Awareness” into a professional work environment. Every organization has its own culture, its written and unwritten rules: how decisions are made, how things get done, the vocabulary used to explain something, how things get done, among others. The same word will have a different meaning in two companies that are in the same industry.

For example, in my first two jobs after business school, I worked at Procter & Gamble and Clorox, both consumer products powerhouses. Clorox was even once a division of Procter & Gamble and it is referred to internally as the “Procter of the West,” since it is based in California. When I moved to Clorox and had the same exact position, the yearly strategic planning process was completely different. As Procter, the process was run by the Finance Manager, where it is run by Marketing at Clorox. I took my old paradigm at Procter and applied it to Clorox. It had devastating effects for my first few months at Clorox. My manager’s manager called me into the office one day and informed me I was not meeting expectations. We figured out what the issue was, and six months later I got promoted. But if I had taken half a step back and had a higher Cultural IQ, I could have avoided the problems I created for myself.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As a civilization, we are disconnecting from each other and from the world. In the last two years, borders have closed. People stopped traveling. It’s become more difficult for people to immigrate to a new country. People have become more parochial and afraid of the other.

At Lingoda, our mission is to build bridges across the world through language learning. These bridges can be virtual and physical.

Virtually, every year, we make millions of connections between people from all over the world. When you enter a class, your teacher could be from France and the four other students from South America, Middle East, Germany, and China. Then when you go to your next class, those four could be from the US, Mexico, UK, and Japan. Every class is a bridge to a new person, and all five of them use language as a means to understand each other and grow together.

Physically, we have launched our peer-to-peer initiative, where we offer free German and integration classes to refugees living in a German-speaking country. We started this one at the end of March as a reaction to the war in Ukraine and many refugees arriving in Germany. This one is very dear to my heart as my parents also came to the US from Taiwan for a new life — and they struggled even with basic conversation in English, despite having studied it for over ten years. Lingoda knows how vital language learning is to refugees to be able to integrate faster into a new society and to establish oneself in a new country, culture and life. We want to help people in need with our free volunteer-led German classes to make sure that they can establish a life in a German-speaking country in the best way possible for them. It is our hope that through language learning, we can foster a more inclusive and understanding world. This is our contribution to taking the first step towards those goals and to provide immediate help to those who need it most.

At Lingoda, in addition to offering flexible classes 24/7 to fit people’s busy schedules, we’re always innovating. One piece of student feedback has been that even after lots of studying of the language and class time, students still can’t understand what people say on TV or on the streets. Thus, we focus on speaking and listening, although we also teach grammar, writing, and reading. A unique feature of Lingoda’s curriculum is that we focus on real life vocabulary and on what native speakers really say.

We’re constantly looking for new ways to enrich language learning for our students and our teachers, while making the whole experience enjoyable and easier. In fact, we’ve just launched our new curriculum 3.0, which focuses even more on everyday speech and accents and colloquial expressions from countries around the world. We really want you to get a true cultural experience out of learning a new language with Lingoda.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

Harvard Research has shown that the global pandemic has triggered an epidemic of loneliness in America with feelings of isolation on the rise. The report suggests that 36% of all Americans — including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children — feel “serious loneliness.” The survey also suggests that lonely people often feel they’re reaching out or listening to other people more than other people are reaching out or listening to them.

As the CEO of an online language school, I know how important it is to make not only our employees (who are also still largely working from home in May 2022) but also our students and teachers feel part of the Lingoda community. Every day, the leaders at Lingoda are encouraged to reach out to employees to check in on their individual needs and situations. We have honest conversations about what we can do to improve their experiences, so that everyone can be on their A game. At the same time, we try to have fun and create working and learning environments that help everyone’s overall wellbeing and feeling of connection. Language learning really is a fantastic way to connect with people from all around the world, to learn about new cultures and feel less isolated.

One class with Lingoda can really take you on a trip around the world. For example, when studying Spanish with Lingoda, you could be in Miami, your teacher could be in Mexico and other participating students could be in Tokyo, London and Berlin. Each class is like a virtual travel experience in itself. And learning languages really opens the door to a whole new world — the people you will encounter and the cultures and countries you will learn about and perhaps even travel to can change your world and definitely work against a loneliness epidemic. Learning languages is not only an enriching process, but it allows you to expand your ability to expand your network and connect with others in a deep and personal way by understanding more of their culture and history.

Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Time, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

In my opinion, feeling lonely and isolated does not have a single cause and is a very complex topic. But loneliness can harm one’s health because

  • When you feel less connected to the people around you — friends, family, colleagues or neighbors — it might feel to you like their lives are continuing without you. That can have a negative effect on your self-esteem and the way you feel about yourself.
  • Loneliness can also be a symptom of depression, which often causes people to withdraw socially, which can lead to isolation.
  • Feeling loneliness can truly have negative effects on your physical health. It could lead to weight gain, sleep deprivation, poor heart health, and a weakened immune system. Loneliness can also put your body under more stress than normal.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

Many experts believe that having constant access to technology, specifically smartphones, can prevent us from making personal connections. We may reach more for our phones even during a lunch date with a good friend, perhaps not paying as much attention to the conversation as much as we would have before we were so attached to our phones. Spending too much time on social media is said to seriously harm our mental health, sparking feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.

Our older generations, who may not be as much connected, could be left out and made to feel more isolated as more and more connections are taking place online. But the question really is whether technology is causing or curing loneliness?

During the corona pandemic, we all witnessed first hand how helpful modern technology and new ways of staying in touch with our friends and family can be. Where would we have been without our dinner dates on Zoom during lockdown? For many of us, those Zoom meetings were quite far removed from the belief that online video conferencing or social media platforms are making us feel numb and disconnected.

I believe that if we use technology to our advantage, it can be an asset to our day to day interactions. When learning or teaching a language with Lingoda, you are getting in touch with people from all around the world who have the same goal as you: Wanting to learn a foreign language and immersing yourself in a new culture. And you’re doing it from the comfort of your own home with people you might not have the chance to meet in real life — when you’re at home in Miami and your teacher is from Argentina.

So what we can do is to use technology that stimulates our improved connections — try out our new language skills with people in your daily life — your Spanish-speaking neighbor or friend and build those bridges. Keep in contact with your language learning group and truly build those bridges around the world.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

I feel like I can connect this question to your previous one. Three main reasons for today’s loneliness epidemic might be:

  • We live in a society focused on individualism. Successes and failures are our own burden to bear.
  • Our definition of success has changed over the years. Does it mean constant new achievements, wealth, power and reputation? If you’re successful professionally, that might make you feel valued in society — but we keep forgetting that achieving success may also have to do with luck and is somewhat determined for us: where we were born and what influences us externally to achieve professional success.
  • With the rise of social media, people might feel like they’re constantly being compared to others and their successes without knowing their failures too. People don’t post about their bad days. This is the way that social media and technology can affect us negatively mentally and make us feel lonely.

But what makes us human is our ability to be able to connect with others and the ability to love and to build relationships. With the rise of social media, people might feel like they’re constantly being compared to others and their successes without knowing their failures too. This is what we should be concentrating on — building honest connections with people, learning about each other. And technology can be a great aid in this if we use it the right way.

Ok. It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

  • Connect with people and make a commitment to reach out to them. It doesn’t even have to be ten people that you don’t feel very close to. Pick one or two people in your inner circle that you feel comfortable with and reach out to them daily. Really make a point to check in with them and ask how they are doing.
  • Sharpen your ability to connect with others in a deep and personal way by understanding more of their culture and history. Learn about their circumstances, be empathetic towards them and understand their backgrounds and why they might behave the way they do. Language learning is actually a great tool to become more empathetic as you learn not only about grammar and syntax but also about cultures and customs across the world.
  • Online video conferencing or social media platforms have the reputation to have made people feel numb or rather disconnected — but this doesn’t have to be true. It can be a fantastic way to make a first connection with new people around the world, as it allows you to speak with people from the comfort of your own home. What builds bridges across different communities more effectively than learning their language and being able to reach them with the push of a button?
  • Try to get out of your comfort zone and engage in social activities. With learning a new language, actually speaking the language is the biggest challenge for most people. And Lingoda’s curriculum is designed to get people to speak as much and as soon as possible. All our classes aim to get in your speaking practice and to connect with the people in your group class — to ask each other questions in the new language and to feel like you’re in this together. You can easily choose at what level you want to begin learning your new language and you will be matched with people at the exact same level as you, so that you can connect easily. Be open and immerse yourself in a new culture — it’s a great way to make new connections and friendships.
  • Embrace the Cultural Quotient and broaden your horizons. Listen and understand with full empathy. Having lived in eight countries across four continents, I’ve learned to adapt to different cultures, especially as the first Chinese American CEO of a German company. These experiences have truly taught me to learn to embrace, appreciate and gain a fuller understanding of various cultures. The time I’ve spent abroad helped me to not only understand others, but also to understand myself.

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. :-)

International Pen Pal Day. When I was young, before the Internet and smartphones, we wrote letters. I had two pen pals: one in France and one in Japan. For International Pen Pal Day, you get assigned a pen pal your age from a country other than where you are from. It could be any of 200 countries. On that day, you write a physical letter introducing yourself, your country, and what it’s like to live in your country. You attach a picture. Your counterpart does the same. Each month, you write one more letter and respond to your pen pal’s questions. After one year, you connect on Zoom and meet.

It all comes back to the idea of connecting with people from different backgrounds, cultures and learning about one another. If we invest more in learning about the other, we can truly foster a world of inclusion and build bridges around the world — even if we don’t always have the chance to meet each other face to face.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I’m thinking long and hard about your question, and I don’t have anybody I would want to meet. Definitely not the standard answers, like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffett. You can test my commitment to this, if they actually do respond.

Here’s why. I like learning about the stories of “ordinary” people, very different from me, not talked up by the media. I’m not interested in meeting famous or “successful” people. Who I would be interested in meeting is a farmer in a small town in China who grow up during the Cultural Revolution, a retired man in Germany who fought as a young soldier in WWII and lived in East Germany during the Cold War, or young mother who is part of a tribe in New Guinea with little to no interaction with the rest of the world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow Lingoda on our website, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and also my personal LinkedIn account for all things Lingoda and language learning.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

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