The Story of Diglot: A Language Learning Start-Up

Diglot dispatches with traditional methods of language education and makes language-learning fun, engaging and effective for beginners. The company creates books that weave foreign words into English sentences so that readers can learn languages while reading classic novels like The Great Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes or Pride and Prejudice. Evan McGloughlin and Cian McNally, Diglot’s co-founders, discuss the story behind the language-learning start-up.

The Team

Evan and Cian live five minutes down the road from one another in Skerries. They played rugby together as children and, after going their separate ways for a few years, found themselves back together again as teenagers in the Institute of Education. They both went on to study at Trinity – Cian in psychology and Evan in neuroscience – where the idea of Diglot began to form towards the end of their penultimate year. The team came up with the business name as well as the concept of their first book, Learn Spanish with Sherlock Holmes, which was published in June 2020. By the end of the year, they had launched the Diglot website and sold over 500 books.

Cian has always been interested in language-learning; he recalls how one evening he began talking with a linguist at a party, who told him about research projects taking place in South Africa. These projects showed that the best way for children to learn languages in a classroom setting is for a teacher to speak in different languages. Following on from further research into the study, Cian found that the best way to learn languages is to read novels that mix languages together. However, the problem is that this method of language-learning is not available to beginners. Cian sees language-learning as simple for intermediate or advanced learners; all they must do is read a book or watch a movie which ‘will get you insanely good, insanely quick’. Meanwhile, beginners must study lists of vocabulary, memorise grammar rules, and read small sentences instead of stories. This led to the idea of Diglot, which aims to bridge this gap and cut out the textbook form of language-learning. As Evan says, Diglot is about ‘making language learning accessible to people who maybe traditionally do not like language learning’ by allowing them to acquire language subconsciously through reading a book.

Where They Are Now

The Diglot team spent the past five months in Spain, where they were able to keep their burn rate low whilst delving into Spanish culture. The base location of the company is subject to change depending on different programmes and projects. As Evan says, Diglot is a ‘very multicultural company so it makes sense for us to travel around the place’. Cian agrees that ‘we can be anywhere in the world working away, which is a real privilege’.

There are ‘a lot of pieces to put together’ in creating a Diglot book. The novels Diglot use are all public domain and out of copyright, which makes the script easily accessible online. The text is sent through an in-house algorithm, which was developed by Diglot’s Head of Research and Development, Oisín Morrin. This produces a script weaved with foreign words, with the percentage of weaving dependent on the difficulty level of the book. This script is then sent to a translator who restores the nuance and ‘beauty of the language’ and is edited and proof-read several times before being sent back to the team. The design process is usually carried out by Evan, who arranges the chapter headings and grammar lists in accordance with a prescribed template. This script is then sent to a cover designer, who designs the front cover and back page of the book. Once this is completed, the script and cover are uploaded to a book publisher who manufactures and distributes the book.

In terms of marketing and promotion, the Diglot team are of the view that they were ‘pretty lucky early on’. The books got ‘unbelievable promotion’ from the ‘bookstagram’ community on Instagram. This community is made up of influencers with between 20,000 and 100,000 followers that share books on their account. This created a ‘very positive-sum relationship’, as Diglot were able to get great promotion and the bookstagram influencers were able to get engaging and innovative content.

In February 2021, Diglot secured a spot in Tangent LaunchBox Accelerator, a competitive summer programme run by Trinity which provides mentorship, funding and a collaborative environment to Trinity students with a start-up business. Evan says that the advantages of the programme are ‘insane and incalculable on multiple dimensions’. Although the team is awarded funding, this is ‘secondary’ to the connections and the network that they build. Not only were they able to get free legal advice that was ‘unbelievably beneficial’, but they were also able to access business mentors that they were able to consult with and talk to each week. As Cian notes, one person or one piece of advice can ‘fundamentally change your business’. The entrepreneurial environment provided by LaunchBox also had a positive impact on the Diglot team. Evan talks of the ‘constant positive reinforcement’ from being around like-minded people, reminding that ‘you can actually build something and have an impact on the world’. Cian agrees that having that support and group of friends has had a positive impact on his mindset and that ‘mindset is everything’ when it comes to running a start-up.

Evan says that one of the most challenging aspects of the start-up has been ‘figuring out leadership, how to manage people, and how to get the most out of people’. With 80 translators in over 20 countries around the world, leadership and management is ‘really important’ for the Diglot team. The style and tone of leadership plays into what the business represents and what it seeks to accomplish. It is important to manage people in an effective way but also in a way which enables them to excel, grow and learn. Evan identifies this as the ‘biggest challenge’, especially in the current online environment; organising people and managing relationships over Zoom is ‘challenging’ and ‘hard to get right’. When asked about the key success factors of the business, Cian recognises the importance of having software to manage people. The Diglot team utilises Notion, a project-management software which helps to take cognitive energy off the team. This has helped the company to automate all cognitive work and manage the multi-part production process at Diglot.

Plans For The Future

Diglot is expanding its book titles and languages every week. The team currently have books in Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin and Japanese in production. For the first time, a person will be able to pick up the Great Gatsby and at the same time pick up a few words of Japanese or Mandarin. As Evan says, ‘that is just not a thing that has existed up until now’. The Diglot team also plan to work directly with authors and weave their books in some exciting projects they have coming up. They also hope to expand into audio books, so that a person will be able to listen to their favourite story in English with foreign words weaved into the audio. The goal of the company is that a person will be able to bring any book, either fiction or non-fiction, and weave the book using Diglot’s system. That person would be able to nominate their language and difficulty level and then start reading from day one. It will be exciting to see how Diglot will continue to reimagine language learning and make it more accessible, engaging and fun for beginners.

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