Leslie Omaña Begert: Magical Stories Promote Language Aquisition
Hi friends, it’s Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. If you know me, you know that I LOVE children’s books. That’s why I’m super excited to talk to Leslie Omaña Begert, co-founder and president of FabuLingua. Leslie has found a way to introduce the Spanish language to children through the wonderful world of children’s books and digital games. Let’s see how she’s doing it!
Spiffy: Hola, Leslie! Let’s jump right in. Can you start by telling us what challenges you’re addressing?
Leslie: Hola, Spiffy! Sí, vamos! Learning a second language in early childhood is a superpower—cognitive development, social-emotional intelligence, and economic opportunity—but we are failing our kids by using a traditional approach based on rules and memorization. FabuLingua’s mission is to make learning a new language more engaging and accessible for kids so that future generations will develop the innate empathy, cultural awareness, and preparedness to lead an increasingly globalized world. FabuLingua harnesses the power of stories and game design to teach kids new languages based on modern learning science.
Spiffy: Can you talk about what motivated you to launch your company and take this unique approach to language acquisition?
Leslie: We wanted our kids to learn a new language but were frustrated with the token solutions for kids that lacked innovation or the application of modern learning science. Early Language education should be as immersive and interactive as possible. We found that kids will figure out vocabulary and grammar constructs if they are engaged in a fun game or story. It’s the power of narrative structure to cement long-term learning. We believe that the future of learning will lean heavily on narrative, gameplay, and community to be an increasingly immersive experience.
Spiffy: Immersion is definitely key, isn’t it? I’m wondering how your work is helping to make the world a more equitable place?
Leslie: Well, Spiffy, when a society has a more developed capacity for empathy, it’s more likely to develop successful equitable systems. Fortunately, empathy can be nurtured in upcoming generations, and a proven way of doing that is by having children learn a second language. Kids that learn a second language have an increased ability to understand that there are other perspectives other than their own, and that forms the bedrock of empathy. A whole generation of children across the world that grow up with more empathy will have seismic and permanent effects on equity across the globe.
Spiffy: The potential is enormous! Can you tell me about a recent initiative and the impact it’s had?
Leslie: A recent FabuLingua initiative was to do an equity crowdfunding campaign. Before the campaign, only 4 out of 36 of our investors were female, and only one of them Hispanic. This was at odds with our customer base which is overwhelmingly female, and significantly Latino. We believed that the existing minimum investment of $25,000 was a major obstacle in obtaining a more diverse investor base. Embarking on equity crowdfunding allowed us to lower our minimum investment to $100, opening up access to ownership in FabuLingua to our community of women, educators, and Latinas.
Spiffy: It sounds like it’s accessible to all! I always ask entrepreneurs about failure. So, Leslie, when have you experienced failure and what did you learn from it?
Leslie: Shortly after founding FabuLingua, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My co-founder is also my husband, father of my kids aged 8 and 10, and we both worked full time on the startup. The sensible decision would have been to wind down the company and our dreams. But we believed so much in what we were building—that it needed to exist in the world—that we stuck it out. I learned that building a vision is a great emotional antidote to cancer, and that selection of the right co-founder is the most important decision for your business. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with—in work as in life.
Spiffy: Have you learned anything interesting lately that you’d like to share with our audience?
Leslie: Recently I had a conversation with a PhD student in the United Kingdom about policies enacted for recruiting young people, aged 16 and over, into the British army. Lots of academic and other papers have been written on this controversial subject, but he told me none of them had interviewed the people participating in the programs! The world of human-centered design only revealed itself to me recently as we started building FabuLingua, and it struck me how other areas of our society, from academia to government, could really benefit from this amazing approach that has been pioneered in the business world.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Leslie: We are developing an immersive mobile game to educate kids. Maria Montessori talked of “meeting the child where she is”. To meet today’s children where they are, we need to know they have high expectations of what is entertaining—it’s not enough to add badges and points to dry EdTech. The world of EdTech is going to have to raise its game in order to educate children while meeting the increasingly high standards of what today’s children find entertaining. In the same way that technology innovation often starts out looking like a toy, we believe the future of education looks a lot like a game.
Spiffy: You’re right, the bar is high, and it looks like you’re poised to reach it! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Leslie, it’s been an honor!
Leslie Omaña Begert, co-founder and president of FabuLingua, is a multilingual Latina who’s lived all over the world. She studied psychology at Oxford and social anthropology at Cambridge. Leslie developed skills in simultaneous translation while on research expeditions in Latin America. This informed the method behind FabuLingua that she created while teaching her kids Spanish through stories. (Nominated by Pathway Ventures. First published on the Ladderworks website on October 5, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.