- Staff photo by Don Himsel
Charles McGonagle, left, and Michael Quinlan are shown at Transparent Language on Wednesday.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel
Charles McGonagle, senior vice president at Transparent Language, talks about social media's relationship with the company on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel
People are shown working in the testing area at Transparent Language on Wednesday.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel
Charles McGonagle, Transparent Language, Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Language training company based in Nashua inspired by son’s word games
EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining 50 years of Nashua business. Stories and multimedia pieces will focus on Milestones, Hidden Assets, and Movers and Shakers in the city’s business community.
To see short videos of Transparent Language founder and CEO Michael Quinlan explaining aspect of the business, click on these links:
3. How to teach foreign languages to people who really just want to jump out of airplanes.
Why is it OK to say "I play the piano" but not "I play the tennis"? How can you read something that doesn’t even use an alphabet? What’s the idea behind languages that assign masculine and feminine gender to things such as furniture and vehicles?
These are the sorts of issues that make it a challenge for many English speakers to learn another language. The answers to these questions also help explain why the Nashua firm Transparent Language has grown steadily over the last decade by developing software and training methods to make Americans more bilingual. There’s certainly no lack of a need.
"America is famously monolingual," said CEO Michael Quinlan, who got the idea for Transparent Language in his Hollis home in 1991 by playing word games with his son.
Transparent Language grew quickly in the 1990s, suffered a "near-death experience" when the dot-com bubble collapsed, but recouped and has grown over the last decade to about 100 employees, almost all in its office just off Northeastern Boulevard.
The firm is one of many in Greater Nashua that, despite a large payroll, good-size footprint and long history, remains largely unknown. It’s an asset to the city’s business community, but a hidden one, overlooked because it sells mostly to military and government customers, not the general public.
Its success comes from focusing on the Defense Department as a customer, Quinlan said.
That’s a good customer to have. Since the 9/11 attacks and the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Department of Defense has been much more interested in having troops learn previously obscure languages such as Farsi, Pushto and Urdu.
"When you’re big and powerful and you can’t talk to the rest of the world, you have a real problem," Quinlan said. "Intelligence is garbled, friendships are messed up. The military understands this."
The privately held company won’t discuss sales, but Quinlan says business is brisk enough that it’s thriving without any outside financing or loans.
Quinlan started the company here because he was living in Hollis, and has never thought of moving it elsewhere.
"New Hampshire is a perfect place for a business like this," he said, citing quality-of-life issues and low taxes.
The company has no problem finding employees, he said, since it often seeks the experience level of young adults who have had enough of cities such as Boston and are looking to settle down.
No cafeteria Babel
Transparent Language’s offices are mostly a cubicle farm, although an attractive one, including the "orange oasis" section apparently decorated by somebody enamored with the color of Crush soda. Only a few places in its industrial-park office reflect teaching tools, including two specialized soundproof areas for recording language videos.
Although a language-training company brings up images of a Babel of tongues filling the cafeteria, only about 12 percent of company employees are trained linguists, according to General Manager Charles McGonagle. Most of the specific lesson development for more than 120 languages, including Nahuatl, Tswana, Canadian French and Basque, are done by hundreds of contractors around the world.
Still, words are definitely in the air here.
"Most people here are interested in languages, interested in the idea of languages, even if they don’t necessarily speak many of them," McGonagle said.
The office is filled with program managers, testers, developers, marketing staff and the like, folks who wrestle with things such as the lack of coding to display specialized characters from little-used languages and the best way to accurately measure the efficacy of training methods.
It has a sort of "geek casual" dress code, and a loose office geography, with few offices with doors. There’s no receptionist; come through the main door and you’re in the midst of workers.
Like all defense contractors, Transparent Language is facing a less certain future with its best client while Washington wrestles with budget deficits.
The company is trying to expand into the corporate and education markets, and even putting a toe in the general-public market dominated by giants such as Rosetta Stone.
This last effort has spawned a sizeable social media presence, including a Facebook page about learning Arabic that has more than a quarter-million "likes," a YouTube channel and lively Twitter feeds.
"We just added a feature: You can click on a phrase to see it used in actual Twitter feeds by native speakers," said Lorien Green, social media manager.
The system also has been bought by hundreds of public libraries, including Nashua’s, allowing patrons to work through some of the company’s lessons online for free.
Transparent Language’s business is built on its methodology of learning language, notably the "flipped classroom." That system has students use computer training to learn the basic facts, including vocabulary, on their own; in class with teachers, they then improve and build on this information with task-based training.
It’s the opposite of high school, where teachers oversee the initial introduction of material and you practice it on your own via homework.
This system works well, Quinlan said, as long as students do the initial work on their own. That’s where dealing with the military helps, because military students really want to succeed.
Fear of your master sergeant does wonders for motivation.
Over the years, Transparent Language has developed three levels of training, roughly known as pre-deployment, language-enabled and linguist, to handle various levels of needs.
"If you can say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ you can accomplish a lot," Quinlan said. "You can get invited home by taxi drivers if you know that much. But if you’re preparing for a deployment, your needs are a lot greater."
Courses at places such as the Defense Language Institute range from a few weeks to as many as 63 full-time weeks for those who need fluency in hard languages such as Chinese.
Transparent Language doesn’t provide the teachers, but can help integrate its system into curriculum. This is another advantage of working with the military, which has a long history of training soldiers, sailors and airmen.
The company also ramps up for special emergencies, such as the Haitian earthquake, the floods in Pakistan, and the tsunami and resulting nuclear-plant problem in Japan, creating specialized translation software or mobile-phone apps.
In Japan, for example, they had to expand the Japanese medical database to handle questions about radiation.
"We built an app for Haitian, and Apple had it up that same night," Quinlan said.
Such technology improvements may nibble away some language-training business by making on-the-fly translations via cellphones or mobile computers better and better, but Quinlan doesn’t think that will affect the company’s results-oriented, more high-end training.
The company could try to do more on the assessment side of the business – it created a free online game called Which is English (whichisenglish.com) that looks like a rudimentary test of language skill level – and has developed considerable expertise in turning teaching methods into technology, which might expand its business.
But one thing’s certain, especially when cash-strapped public school systems are cutting language classes: The need they target isn’t going away.
David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.