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  Alice Diec Zhao, MS ’05 ENG, co-developer of Gus on the Go, a mobile app that helps young children master languages ranging from Mandarin to Hebrew. Photo Credit: Evan Sears  

Digital Educator

Alice Diec Zhao on teaching children new languages and her new app, Gus on the Go.

Digital Educator

Alice Diec Zhao on teaching children new languages and her new app, Gus on the Go.

Growing up in Orland Park, we spoke Cantonese at home. My sister was born in Saigon, but my younger brother and I were born here in the Chicago-area after my parents emigrated from Vietnam in 1979. Around the time I was five, my mom says, we kids decided we wouldn’t speak Cantonese because it was too hard.  

I think when your peers don’t speak a language, there’s just no interest. Even though I spent lots of time with my sister, brother and cousins growing up, we just didn’t want to speak Chinese.

It’s the same struggle I know I’ll face with my two sons, Dylan and Miles. My husband speaks Cantonese, thankfully better than I do. We want our kids to know Cantonese—not just to learn a language, but for them to communicate with their grandparents, who don’t speak English well. I want them to have meaningful conversations, and that was the biggest motivator for Gus on the Go, my children’s educational language mobile app, which follows an owl named Gus as he travels around the world exploring languages, and learning numbers, colors and shapes.

After Dylan was born, I wanted to figure out what my career should be. With a computer science and bioinformatics background, I’d worked as a database developer with The Genome Institute and developed web applications at Gate 58 Marketing. Working outside the home with a baby was difficult. I began bouncing around different ideas with my friend Yono Mittlefehldt, a software developer, about creating an iPhone or iPad app. One day, a neighbor who’s a language teacher texted me about a language app she saw at a conference. She said, “I think you could do better.”

I immediately thought it made sense. I wanted my son to learn Cantonese. Yono was born in Israel, grew up in the U.S., married a German woman and now lives in Germany, so his kids need to learn at least three languages.  We also wanted to test our business partnership. We quickly realized that we were on the same level, high fiving over the Internet all the time.
We’d never done graphics before, but we both have artistic tendencies. We ended up making all the graphics ourselves—that’s why we’re so proud of it.

The app really is our blood, sweat and tears. I created the character Gus on a whim. I really liked owls at that moment, so I decided to draw one to see what would happen, and it stuck. GusGus was my nickname for Dylan when I was pregnant with him.
It took us about six months to launch. We released Spanish and English versions in June 2012 and slowly added more languages, recording native speakers in my house.

The beauty is that we are able to offer many niche languages. There are tons of Spanish and French apps out there, but for a language like Taiwanese, it’s difficult. Most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin, but there’s a chunk who speak Taiwanese. Because I have so many friends from Taiwan, I was able to record and release an app that’s Taiwanese Mandarin and one that’s Taiwanese.

A year later, we reached 4,000 unit sales and 14 languages. We launched an Android version as well, and plan to add Hindi and Japanese soon. We’d love to have Gus on the Go sustain itself so we can move on and continue to be creative. We’re brainstorming the next set of apps. I think we’re going to stay in the education realm because that’s what’s important to us and it’s what we get excited about.

Dylan was 18 months old when we finally launched the Cantonese version. He had just learned to repeat after us, so it was the perfect time for him to test the app. He went straight to shapes, which are not easy to say in Cantonese. When he started repeating after the app, I felt like my heart was so full. All the work we put into it came to a head right there, and I knew this is exactly what I should have been doing this whole time.

 

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