Tech helps babies learn foreign languages

small TALK's Egg device

small TALK’s Egg device

Babies learn by experiencing (and listening to) the world around them. They are born ready to acquire language. smallTALK, a consumer technology company startup in Cleveland, is developing tech licensed from the Baby Brain Optimization Project Research Lab (BBOP Lab) of Nationwide Children’s Hospital that takes advantage of this learning window.

We spoke to smallTALK’s CEO Dean Koch and chief commercial officer Amy Husted about the company’s vision and the tech behind it.

What’s smallTALK’s origin story?

Koch: I co-founded smallTALK with Dr. Natalie Maitre, who was, at the time, a neuroscientist and a neonatologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital (in Columbus). Her work is based on how the infant brain acquires language and the impact of how acquiring language creates the language center that’s there for life.

The idea is when you have a bilingual or multilingual infancy you gain not only a language advantage, but also a lifelong cognitive advantage. The richer and more diverse that language interaction is, the better off your brain is, Not only in processing language, but in all sorts of other positive ways–like musicality, artistic ability, mathematics, and attention span.

The company was founded in 2018. Rev1 Ventures helped fund us.

You found a way to turn that science into a product.

Koch: We had to ask if this was something anybody would care about? Is there a demand for something like this, is this going to meet a need? So, one of the first things Natalie and I did when we formed the company was talk with 800 consumers in the United States and China. One of the top things people value is foreign language skills. It’s higher than sports and higher than arts. Tech-related foreign language learning is a $125 billion global industry, but few are doing anything in the infant space.

Husted: Our technology is different than passively listening. Science has proven there’s no actual brain change happening with passive listening. There’s nothing that actually happens which changes a lifelong pathway for a baby. What makes us unique is active engagement. Our tech includes a pacifier. The baby sucking on a pacifier is what causes our product to give them audio content of foreign language. It fades away, but comes back when the baby starts to suck on the pacifier again. Active engagement is a really important part of the scientific underpinnings of our product and it’s what makes it different from other products on the market. [Amy produces a podcast for the company called Growing Up that demystifies the science that goes into what they do.]

Describe the tech for us.

Husted: The hardware (a small egg and the pacifier) pairs with the smallTALK app. Once they download the app, parents can choose their language. They can choose multiple languages if they want. We have a vast library of content and have playlists they can turn on for passive enjoyment. Parents will be able to make their own recordings on the app. They’ll also be able to share recordings with loved ones. So grandma, who lives out of state, can read a story that can get uploaded.

With this early learning, it seems like accents would be developed as well.

Koch: By interacting with our product, a baby’s brain is being wired to discriminate speech sounds. It’s creating highways and superhighways for processing. So, let’s say they’re hearing Mandarin or Spanish speech sounds. That makes being able to verbalize that language very easy. If the average American tries to learn French later in life, their brains are not wired to hear or repeat the rolled ‘r’ sound. Earlier is better and that’s one of the impacts of the use of this technology.

What has the advantage been in launching your company in Ohio?

Koch: Ohio has incredible research institutions for pediatric research. In addition to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, there are university hospitals here in Cleveland that do amazing work and at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. We have so much research capability in the Midwest and so much technology is being invented.

I’ve spent time in Silicon Valley. I think the people in the Midwest are much more grounded. We’ve made connections here we wouldn’t have been able to make in a huge city.