Common: Why We’re Creating a World Without Language Barriers

My dad and I, on our first father-son bonding trip through China.

For my entire life, I’ve had trouble talking to my dad. He only speaks Chinese, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I only have a 7-year-old’s understanding of the language.

It sucks. It really does.

As much as we love each other, it’s always been nearly impossible for us to communicate beyond a superficial level. I was never able to tap into his wisdom to navigate through all of the critical junctures in my life, never able to ask him how to approach my middle-school crush, never able to get his advice on what major to pick in college, never able to consult him on whether I should quit my job to start my own company.

Usually, I sit in silence when we have meals together, thinking of all of the things I wish I could say. Sometimes I’ll attempt an awkward mix of charades and fumbling through a Chinese dictionary app to try to get a thought or question across, but it’s hard. It’s hard not being able to connect with someone that I care for deeply, and it’s hard not being able to understand how he came to be the man that he is.

You might ask, “Why don’t you know more Chinese?” Or, “Why doesn’t your dad speak English?”

I spoke Cantonese exclusively (my parents’ primary dialect of Chinese) at home until I started kindergarten. Around that time, my mom was also studying to become a nurse, so we started practicing English together as I progressed through ESL classes. English gradually became my dominant language. (I also recently devoted 4 months entirely to learning Cantonese, but I’m still far from speaking fluently. Learning a language is hard!)

My dad, on the right, with one of his best friends back in China. I once asked him if a lot of girls liked him in his youth. His reply: “Of course!”

On the flip side, my dad immigrated to the United States in 1981. He spent the great majority of his 30+ year career as a talented chef in various Chinese restaurants (including his own — entrepreneurship runs in the family) alongside other Chinese chefs, and rarely had to interact with English-speakers.

As ambitious, hard-working, and charismatic as my dad is, he never had access to the same opportunities that we enjoy as English speakers. His language barrier with American society literally limited his salary, social mobility, and even his sense of self-worth at times.

These challenges are not unique to my family. In the United States alone, over 19 million adults don’t speak English fluently, amounting to about 1 in 10 adults as a nationwide average. Imagine how difficult it might be as a non-English speaker, barely able to communicate with over 90% of the people you live with. Now, compound that with the fact that you’re twice as likely to be poor, twice as likely to drop out of school, and much more likely to be depressed.

These are only some of the tremendous challenges that millions of people experience deeply and daily, and we don’t have any adequate solutions for their problems. On the one hand, real-time translation companies charge per minute what some people earn in an hour (or a day!) — too expensive for all but the biggest organizations and wealthiest individuals. On the other hand, machine translation isn’t yet reliable enough to carry a conversation with all the richness, nuance, and complexity of human language.

This is why Common exists. Our mission is to make translation accessible, affordable, and reliable for everyone, and ultimately, build a world without language barriers.

We’re building a messaging platform that allows you to have translated conversations, with people that matter most, in the situations that are most dire. Somewhere in the world, right now, there’s a cancer patient who doesn’t understand the type of care that she’s getting, there’s a business-owner who is losing customers due to language barriers, there’s a son who can’t talk to his dad in Chinese.

As an engineer, entrepreneur, and problem-solver, I can’t think of a problem that I’m more passionate about solving and that’s affected me so deeply. Our mission is ambitious, and we’re destined to face major challenges along the way. It is daunting, but we’re pumped.

Millions of people around the world urgently need a better solution, and we’re really excited to be teaming up with Matter to be able to reach those people faster. We’re genuinely looking forward to embodying Matter’s approach to designing with empathy, so that we can build a platform that truly meets the needs of people from a variety of cultures and that breaks down language barriers in the myriad situations in which they impact our lives.

We’re incredibly passionate about our mission to create a world without barriers, and we hope you’ll join us on our journey! Please reach out to us if you could use something like this or if you’re interested in collaborating!

Say hello: hello@common.chat

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