Launchpad 2017
Leslie Begert

Leslie Begert


2021 launchpad winner


Co-Founder: Leslie Begert

Primary Audience: Elementary

FabuLingua helps kids learn languages through interactive children’s stories from writers and illustrators all over the world. Our unique method of maximizing comprehensible input through magical stories enables the subconscious development of listening, comprehension and reading skills while the child is engaged and stress-free.

LaunchPad Questions

During the LaunchPad, the audience had an opportunity to ask questions about the products. The Tech Center shared those questions with the entrepreneurs and here are the responses. 

Is there an ideal time to use Fabulingua with children?

If the question relates to ‘what time of day’, it really depends on your family schedule and the temperament of your child at different times of day. Consistency is what yields best results. Anything that makes FabuLingua (and the comprehensible input it provides) a regular and consistent feature in a child’s life will lead to better learning outcomes. Of course, you also want the child not to be hungry, tired or otherwise cranky when using FabuLingua. For some families they can create that consistency before going to bed, for other families their kids are not at their best before bed time, so it really does depend. Some families can build it into their schedule earlier on in the day, when Mommy needs some quiet time during the baby’s nap. Some families that don’t give much access to screentime to their kids use FabuLingua as a ‘treat’ where their child is allowed x minutes of playtime for having done their chores etc, and these families tend not to necessarily use it on a schedule, but as and when the reward is needed. Other families use it on regular car trips etc (where mom ends up learning a lot of Spanish in the front seat!).

Maybe the question meant ‘time’ as in ‘age’? If so, FabuLingua is designed for children aged 2-10 years old. Some families choose to start even younger kids on it, because they too can benefit from this input in a second language, and often families are already using devices at these younger ages anyway. Typically these younger kids will fare better with the product if a caring adult is next to them, accompanying them through the experience. But even in those situations, we’ve had parents telling us how intuitive it is for those much younger kids. We have also heard of teachers using it with their teenage students. They seem to like that it’s not intimidating and feels ‘easy’ and low stress. Even parents have told us they learn a lot when their little ones do FabuLingua alongside them.

Krashen's theory of language acquisition lacks a social component. Do you have a fix for this?

Nothing can replace the bond and positive reinforcement that comes from sitting on a loved one’s lap when reading a book. For the much younger kids, we do recommend that their introduction to FabuLingua be with a caring adult, because that bond is an important component in the establishment of a positive feeling toward reading (on a device or in a book). For older kids we start seeing that they soon ‘outgrow’ their parents in the app and want to do it all on their own. We do believe, however, that if the adult remains engaged in the progress of the child it is very motivating. When new levels are unlocked we recommend, for example, that as a fun game the adult and the child take turns in every page in doing some of the recording modes and listen to themselves being played back. It is very empowering for a child to see an adult try and do something they are not good at. So mom may try and do a recording, they’ll laugh about it, and then it’s the kids’ turn for them to do it. This is particularly empowering because it is not long before the child’s accent becomes much more like that of the native narrator, and they become ‘better’ than mom at being a CopyCat. Parents and children can also take turns on the many games in each story’s game section, and have some friendly competition where the parent may be suitably wowed that their child beat them at that game. The final mode in each story is ‘Read by myself’ and here the child ends up with a recording they can share with a teacher or grandparent. This sharing can be a real source of pride and a way to connect the child’s efforts to another caring adult in their life. Having these little audio gifts that a child can share with his grandparent can be very bonding. Profiles can be shared, and Grandma can even send her grandchild a recording of her reading him his favorite story, which can be played as an audiobook to send the child to sleep.

In the future, as we onboard schools and classes we will have limited, age appropriate social components to the overworld, which will allow kids in a class or school to see how much progress their friends have made, and what XP points they have gained, how their avatars are dressed and with what accessories. The idea is to use these social elements to motivate the kids to read even more stories in FabuLingua.

Research on young kids and EdTech shows that Comp Input is stronger with in-person communication (body language, Q&A from adults). What research do you have to prove the effectiveness of this app?

We are not at a point in our development where we can yet afford a large scale efficacy test, so the evidence of the efficacy that we currently have comes from feedback we’ve got from parents. We are always hearing back that parents are amazed that after months of using FabuLingua, their kids are really making progress, and speaking with native-like accents that could not have come from anywhere other than the app. While we agree that in-person communication is indeed great for creating comprehensible input, we all know that the more of it a child is exposed to, the more language acquisition will happen. And (much as we may sometimes want to) you can’t put your teacher in your pocket and take her home! Teachers know this and don’t see us as ‘competition’ – quite the contrary. They have been reaching out to us asking us if they can please have access to this tool for their classrooms. Some want to use FabuLingua as a reading extension program at home (where their students’ parents often don’t speak the target language) and thereby increase exposure outside the classroom, and some use it as a supplementary tool in class, or a treat for their students. Some use it as a pre-assignment to a class. They ask the child to read a given story, and unlock several levels in the story before the next class. This way the teacher does not have to focus on teaching basic vocabulary from the story (the children have already learned it), but can do extension lessons that cover other uses of that vocabulary, or do extension activities on that theme such as acting out skits etc that use that story as a launch pad for more learning.

Are you able to change the speed of the voice? Slowing it down or speeding it up?

We are able to slow down the voice (in the Settings menu). Right now we are unable to speed it up, but we are working on a way that can be done in the future.

How would this app apply to college level students? Have you tried this app with other languages such as Russian, Arabic, or Chinese?

We have been asked by teachers and parents for a version of our product in Russian and in Chinese (they even offered up to translate our stories for us!). From those preliminary conversations and enthusiasm, those teachers seem to think it would work in those languages, but we have not yet tested it. The first one of those languages that we will test will be Mandarin.

We do have some college level students that use the app, they find it a low stress, reassuringly simple tool that supplements their learning. Because our stories are all created with very high quality art, many of them find it a beautiful environment in which to spend time, and they like the games. But we will remain focused on designing for children aged 2-10, albeit (like in a Pixar movie) the extremely high production quality means that plenty of adults also enjoy it.

Can you play the audio for your kids without the magical translations?

Yes. The Magical Translations serve ONLY to make the audio and text input comprehensible. If the child already understands Spanish, the Magical Translations are not helpful, so we recommend you turn them off (this can be done in the Settings section of the app).

Is the program only in Spanish?

For the moment FabuLingua is used to teach Spanish to English speakers. But we know that many ESL are using it too (as a hack), so by the end of the year we will have launched a version that teaches English to Spanish speakers. After that we will move on to Mandarin-English and then onto other languages.

Can you turn off the translations? If my kids were bilingual, they may not want to hear the English translations.

Yes. The ONLY purpose of the Magical Translations is to make the audio and text input comprehensible the first (or second) time that they hear a story. If the child already understands Spanish because they are bilingual, the Magical Translations are not helpful, so we recommend you turn them off (this can be done in the Settings section of the app). Note: The Magical Translations are only used in the first level of each story, and all the other levels that subsequently unlock in that story are only in the target language (it’s assumed that the child already comprehends the story when these other levels have unlocked). Also, note that even if you turn off the Magical Translations, a child can still touch any given word and hear the Spanish syllabic breakdown and then the translation (pe-rro; perro; dog), which basically means that every word in every story has a built in pronunciation guide and dictionary.

Is your app available for other developers to modify its target language to other foreign languages than Spanish?

Right now it is not open source. We do intend to expand into other languages starting with English for Spanish speakers and Mandarin, but that’s a good suggestion which I’ll bring to our developers. Thank you!

The red dress example was terrible!

FabuLingua has all sorts of stories, at different levels of difficulty with all kinds of themes, written by many authors and illustrated by different artists. If you did not like that example there are many more you may want to explore on the app (or you can get a feel for them from the ‘stories’ section of our website here). If you download the app and want to explore the free version, the first three pages of each one of our stories are available for free so you can sample our different art styles and levels of difficulty. We release a new story every month so we’re always adding stories.

Not sure I like the way the sentences are broken into pieces. People do not speak like that (Raquel se pone - Raquel puts in- el traje - the dress).

You’re right – people do not speak like that. The purpose of the Magical Translations is to create comprehensible input the first time you hear a story. The idea is that once you have read a story with the Magical Translations you then more or less understand what is going on in each page, so that you can then read it many times over again in just the target language and understand it each and every time even though nothing is being translated anymore. You’ve assimilated the meaning. The Magical Translations are only used the first time you’re exposed to the story. The subsequent levels that you unlock are all only in the target language. If your child is bilingual and already understands the Spanish we recommend you turn off the Magical Translations (you can do this in the Settings).

What would you say about current trends in language teaching that discourage translation as a way of teaching FLs?

We think written translations should be discouraged. They are not helpful and provide too much of a ‘crutch’ which the learner may come to rely on too much. Our Magical Translations are deliberately never written down, they are only oral (technically they are ‘interpretations’ not ‘translations’ but the general public is not conversant with that distinction so we stuck to the more generically understood ‘translations’).

The nature of something oral is that it is very temporary – only there for the moment in which it is spoken and then it vanishes, leaving behind it a wake of ‘comprehension’. You generally understand what that page was about, although you may not specifically know what each and every word means. But in your mind you are subconsciously creating a hypothesis that this word has this meaning and then using deduction over the course of the story and subsequent stories to confirm or disprove your hypothesis.

Raquel se pone/ Raquel puts on
Un vestido rojo/ a red dress
Y unos zapatos rojos/ and some red shoes

In this example you don’t know for sure that vestido is dress – vestido could be ‘rojo’ (if you were going by word order).
And yet a similar word to ‘rojo’ (‘rojos’) comes up in the next line and there is no reference to a dress in that segment, but there is a reference to red, which also came up with regards to the dress. Then when you touch the dress and it only talks of vestido and there is no mention of ‘rojo’ so your hypothesis is confirmed.

Because we translate in small chunks of meaning (we call them ‘interpretation phrases’) there is a lot of deduction going on subconsciously in each and every page (lots of hypotheses to be proved or disproved!). This means your brain is working hard to deduce and assimilate meaning, which is a very active participation of your mind in the construction of a new language map. It is very different from passively receiving translations as would be in the case of flashcards with a translation on the other side, or a bilingual book.

So we agree that traditional written translations are not helpful, but oral interpretations of short phrases that leave meaning behind, and require subconscious hypothesising and deduction – those are very helpful in creating comprehensible input.

How is the magical translation different from bilingual books? Are students just waiting for English? I appreciate OwnVoice authors!

For us, bilingual books have never worked to significantly improve the language learning outcomes of our children. They are helpful to parents who need some help understanding the target language, but we’ve not found them that effective for the child who is learning. When our children were small and we used bilingual books we found they did precisely what you say, they ignored the Spanish and just waited for the English. That’s because these books are translating various sentences, and sometimes even a whole paragraph at once. With Magical Translations, the ‘interpretation phrases’, as we call them, are much shorter and often consist of 3 to 5 words depending on the phrase (they constitute a single chunk of meaning). This means that there is not enough time to ‘switch off’ from the target language and the listener has no choice but to pay attention to the target language.

So, at first glance it may feel similar to a traditional bilingual book, but there is never any written translation (only a temporary oral translation) and the phrases being translated are much shorter than in a traditional bilingual book. On top of that they are rhythmically interwoven into the target language at a cadence that means that the target language cannot be ignored the way it can be in a traditional bilingual book.

We also appreciate OwnVoice authors! We feel that by looking for stories from across Latin America and Spain we bring many more diverse voices into a child’s world.

There are many ways to make input comprehensible and from SLA research we know that translation is the least effective. Does the translation drop later?

Yes. You only hear the Magical Translation the first time you read through a story. All the subsequent levels in that story are in the target language. If someone is already bilingual, the translations should be turned off, since they don’t serve their purpose of rendering the input comprehensible.

What about scalability of the program?

We are deliberately built on a modular platform that allows us to easily scale to other languages with the same stories and art assets that we already have. We also have a robust backend that allows scalability.

We are currently working on our backend to be able to onboard classrooms and schools soon.

How long does it take to develop a unit? How do you engage the authors?

When we first started it took us 14 months to develop our first story. Now it takes us a month. As we create more re-usable tools for each story the production times go down. The idea is that we are slowly creating a platform where our internal story creation tools will gradually be able to be used by increasingly less technical developers and eventually turned out to the creators of the illustrations so that they can participate in the adaptations of their work into our language learning assets to be deployed across many languages.

What type of assessment strategies do you apply to capture increase in fluency or comprehension?

We currently have three games in each story that measure different aspects of language learning. A matching game for comprehension of vocabulary from the story, a spelling game and a gender matching game. These are games where a lot of repetition is helpful to ensure good learning outcomes, and success in these games also implies certain levels of comprehension have been attained. We are about to launch a fourth game and will continue launching many more games that will serve as both evaluation and learning tools.

The key for us is that none of these games, or anything in the app, should ever feel ‘like homework’, because if it does we will have lost the attention of many of our little language learners, and with it their capacity to learn a second language.

I really like the idea of reading in two languages and then different game activities!!! Hope it is affordable for teachers who have to use their own budget.

We are working very hard to make a highly affordable version of the app for teachers. We have not nailed down the business model yet, but we understand and respect those sentiments and want to work hard to be of service to teachers!

It also gives the impression that the only way for a Spanish story to make sense and be meaningful and enjoyable by kids is if provided with a translation.

We understand that there are many methods by which to create comprehensible input, and all are valid! With regards to children’s stories a parent or a teacher can make the written and audio input comprehensible (and therefore enjoyable) for the child in many ways. (There is nothing funnier and more memorable than your parent or teacher acting things out for you!) However, as a busy mom I was looking for a tool that didn’t always require my physical presence for my children to get the comprehensible input they needed to progress in their language learning. I wear many other hats other than language teacher and read aloud parent (mom, employee, short order chef, chauffeur, patient, friend, wife), so that’s why we created something that could be an asynchronous tool for comprehensible input based learning that could be experienced independently by our children.

We’d like to clarify here, that the Magical Translation is something kids will experience the first time they read through a story. After that they will unlock 4 other levels in that story that are all in the target language only. So the majority of their experience of any given story will be of the story in the target language, the Magical Translations version of the story is something that serves only as an introduction, as a way of gaining a foothold of comprehension. By the time they reach the last level, their enjoyment of the story is not associated only with a translation – it is associated with the illustrations, the interactions, the plot and sometimes the rhyme. All of the usual elements in an illustrated children’s book.

Many language learning experts say translation keeps students reliant on the translation for comprehension of texts. Thoughts?

See answer to question 12: What would you say about current trends in language teaching that discourage translation as a way of teaching FLs?

We agree that traditional translations create a crutch and can therefore ultimately be harmful for language acquisition. But as the answer in question 12 shows, the Magical Translations differ in a number of key ways from a traditional translation, and they therefore have a totally different effect and never serve as that crutch. In addition, the Magical Translation is experienced the first time a story is read. Each of the subsequent levels that are unlocked in the story are in the target language which means that by the time the little language learner has got to the last level and ‘mastered’ the story, most of their experience in the story is in the target language. The Magical Translation was merely there at the start of their journey with that story.

You talked about stories from South America & Spain yet state this is a global platform. Plans for stories from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world?

I misspoke and should have said Latin America and Spain. As we add new languages we are adding stories native to those other languages – for example we’re adding stories originally written in English as we ramp up to having an ESL product. But each story that we produce will be available across all the languages we teach, regardless of the language it was originally written in.

Can I switch the language translations? My kids are stronger in Spanish than Mandarin, but could use a bilingual story in Mandarin and Spanish.

We are working on being able to do that, but we’re not quite sure yet!

Does your app record children's voices?

Yes. Each story has five different levels of difficulty, and in two of those we record their voices. The first one is called ‘CopyCat’, where the child records themselves as they imitate the narrator. Then there is a playback of the narrator’s version and their version, so they can hear the difference. In ‘CopyCat’ the recordings are not stored anywhere, they disappear as soon as the page is turned or the app is closed down. In the final, most difficult level (‘Read by Myself’), the child records themselves as they read each page of the story (no help from the narrator). At the end of the story they have the option of saving that recording to their device and then sharing it by text/email etc with a teacher or relative.

Are the illustrations in the App vector?

No, our illustrations are not vector. We have a number of artists who illustrate by hand and then import their work into Photoshop. Vector art would remove a lot of the hand drawn quality that makes our stories so unique.

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The Language Flagship Technology Innovation Center is funded under a grant from the Institute of International Education (IIE), acting as the administrative agent of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office (DLNSEO) for The Language Flagship. One should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Project P.I.: Dr. Julio C. Rodriguez