Learn to be Bilingual By iPhone: The Story of MamaLingua


Christia Hoffman and Aileen Passeriello McAleer

Aileen Passariello-McAleer and Christia Hoffman did not set out with the goal of starting their own internet company.  In fact, they found each other quite by accident, through the site of another internet company— meetup.com  Aileen (a mom fluent in Spanish since childhood) had decided, all on her own, to offer free Mom and Baby Spanish classes out of her living room.  Christia (a mom with minimal Spanish and a simple conviction that exposing her daughter to the language would bring good things to their life) signed up.  Six months later, they were going into business together, launching the first-ever parent-focused Spanish learning app on the market: “MamaLingua.”

“It just kind of evolved,” Christia explained to me as we were sitting down to coffee one morning.  “Aileen had put together these really dynamite lessons for the group, things that were really super useful for us new parents, all of us with various levels of Spanish.  And I just said to her, why don’t we capture this somehow, and try to make it available to people on the internet?”  “It was just kind of a perfect match,” Aileen explained.  Christia was a voice actor, writer and editor, who could take Aileen’s raw content and polish it into marketable material; Aileen, who has her MBA in Entrepreneurship had studied what it took to get new enterprises launched, and was primed and ready for the challenge.  

At first, they considered podcasts– building on Christia’s background in voice acting, Aileen explained. “Then we realized, what’s the one thing a parent always has with them?  Their phone.”   Christia nodded in agreement.  “I remember those early months, breastfeeding.  I needed activities I could do one-handed, and parked in my chair.” Thus, they set out to reach parents who are not bilingual but who want to raise their children to speak a second language. 

“Parenting is so much about repetition,” Aileen reflected.  “Arming parents with as much of the basic language as we can in those early years can really be powerful.  You’ll get plenty of practice saying the phrases to your kids again and again, and together you and your child can learn!”

Learning key phrases and vocabulary that one can use in every day routines with their children seemed like a very powerful place to start.  They met Peter, a grizzled software developer who was so inspired by their idea, he wanted to donate time to help them; he described to them his own, “low-tech” system of placing post-it notes around his house in various key locations, with key phrases in Spanish that he needed to use with his children.  I nodded in enthusiastic agreement, telling them about the vocabulary sheets I used to print out when my daughter was first born, taping them over the changing table and by her crib.  Reflecting on the power of repetition, I joked “I’ll certainly never forget the word for pañal!” (diaper).

MamaLingua builds on this basic need for repetitive phrases and vocabulary. With parents in mind, Aileen and Christia have curated a discreet set of vocabulary and phrases for parents to use repeatedly with their children, in Spanish.  The goal is to empower even the most novice Spanish speaker to use Spanish with their child, by providing accessible and relevant material to the parents— things they can use in daily life.  They offer the content by ‘category’, so you can choose a particular context (“sleeping” or “bathing”, for example).  And then, under each category, you can pull up commonly-used phrases.  

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Aileen and Christia know that the app is just one way in which technology can promote  language learning for parents that can then be transferred to their children.

They have begun experimenting with video shorts, doing quick mini-lessons on You Tube.  And they’re eager to explore other media as well, recognizing that different people learn in different ways.  But they know that to successfully support the budding bilingual parent, they need to do more than develop specific tools to help them.

It really comes down to creating and building community,” Aileen explained.  We reflected on the isolation parents often feel when they are raising children with a second language, and how community– both on the internet and in person– can help to provide much-needed support.   “Of course you need local community-– meet-ups, playdates, etc.  But we felt like doing something on the internet could really add to that, especially if you don’t know where to start at home.”  Christia nodded in agreement.  “We also know that the app can’t cover every level of ability and every situation you might find yourself in with your child, especially as you advance in your learning.”  She explained.  The idea is to provide a starting point for parents, and then to hopefully start to build a platform in which rich online interactions between parents can take place.   

 “We’re still in very early stages of that broader concept,” she added, smiling ruefully.  “It is, after all, something we’re doing in our spare time.”

Part time or not, the results thus far are promising; the app is very technically robust, and people are beginning to use it in greater numbers.  Substantial challenges remain.  “Reach is a huge challenge— figuring out how we get the word out.”  Aileen explained.   But they are motivated– both Christia and Aileen understand the importance of connection with like-minded parents in the journey to raise a child bilingually.   

“If we can contribute to helping parents find support, new tools, and a sense of belonging as they raise their children with a second language,” Christia reflected, “I know we will be providing something of real value.”

For more information on MamaLingua and other online resources in a variety of languages, visit our page here at Think Bilingual Austin.