The sound of Chatloop chatter
Photos from Pexels
Photos from Pexels
UQ School of Languages and Cultures PhD student Michael Mersiades’ startup company ‘Chatloop’ recently won the inaugural Shane Chidgzey Young Entrepreneurs Award.
Any university student studying in a lesser-known HASS field, such as Applied Linguistics, will be familiar with the need to explain your field every time someone asks what you study.
“Applied Linguistics? What is that, exactly? Like, can you speak French?”
This is inevitably followed by questions about what sort of job you’ll have at the end of your degree.
“Oh! So you’ll, like, teach French to people, or something?”
But being a HASS student doesn’t mean your options are limited to the jobs that your field pigeonholes you into. With a bit of creative thinking, you can find innovative ways to apply your skills and make a living.
I got a taste of this in 2017, when I did an internship at a chatbot startup in Shanghai. As an applied linguist, I wasn’t sure that I’d be much use at a tech startup. But they were building a chatbot to help people learn English, and my knowledge and experience of second language acquisition was something they highly valued.
Since then, I’ve turned my attention to helping people from refugee backgrounds learn English.
I started piloting an idea where refugees connect to volunteers through WhatsApp. They connect to a partner and have a chat or play a game using text and audio messages. They only send a few messages a day, and when they’ve finished, they connect to a new partner for another activity.
For people from refugee backgrounds, they get a wonderful drip-feed of authentic communication practice, which is hard to get otherwise. And for the volunteers, they can make a difference in someone’s life with just five minutes of their day.
The pilot program had been going really well, so I started thinking that maybe this could be something more. I started calling it Chatloop, and I began the Germinate startup accelerator program at ilab.
Anyone who has done Germinate will tell you that you spend a lot of your time explaining to influential people why your startup will be successful.
I’ve found that being an expert in your field really helps. I can think of at least three times when I could visibly see my mentors’ attitudes change once they found out that I was an expert in language learning, and that Chatloop was based on solid second language acquisition principles.
So this little story is just one example of how expertise in a HASS field doesn’t have to limit you to the usual HASS jobs.
There is recognition within the startup and entrepreneurship community that startups are better placed for success if they have subject matter experts on their founding teams.
But Chatloop has a long way to go before it can be called successful.
The next step is a crowdfunding campaign in October 2018. We’re raising money to build a Chatloop app, so it can be accessible to all refugees and volunteers all over the world, rather than the lucky few who got onto the pilot program.
If you want to help Chatloop on its journey, consider contributing to the crowdfunding campaign at www.startsomegood.com/chatloop, and supporting us on social media.
Photos from Pexels. An earlier story about Michael's Shanghai experience is here.