Two women set out to break through cultural barriers for anyone with a smartphone and a willingness to learn.
By Alessandra Rey
Christia Madacsi Hoffman was desperate to find a way to raise her infant daughter in a Spanish-speaking household. There was just one problem: She didn’t really know Spanish.
“I had been looking for some resources when my daughter was about 4 months old,” Hoffman says. “I knew that I wanted to expose her to Spanish. It was the most obvious choice of languages in Texas. But my background was in French.”
At the time, another mother, Aileen Passariello-McAleer, was offering classes out of her home in order to help other moms learn Spanish in a way that would specifically benefit their relationships with their children.
“I taught Spanish in my home, and Christia was actually one of my students,” Passariello-McAleer says. “I was teaching based on chunk learning, so, categories-based, including topics like changing, sleeping and eating. One day after class, [Christia] came up to me and told me I should put [the class]online. She turned out to be the yin to my yang.”
After graduating with a biology degree from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2002, Miami native Passariello-McAleer spent years working for IBM in New York City. Her work in the health-care space as a client manager inspired her to pursue a master’s degree, which she completed at the University of Texas.
“That experience gave me a taste of business, which I really enjoyed,” Passariello-McAleer says. “I chose UT because of its great entrepreneurship program and Austin’s culture for startups. I knew that one day, I wanted to start my own business.”
After working at various startups in Austin, she realized it was time to create something of her own. It was only after she began to raise her children in a bilingual household that she decided to share her experiences with others who were eager and willing to learn.
Hoffman, armed with an associate’s degree in visual-communication design, is a published poet who formerly owned her own writing and design agency. Her creative experience helped Passariello-McAleer materialize her goal of owning a company that promotes multiculturalism.
With their joined forces, MamaLingua was born. The app, available for both iOS and Android platforms, hosts an enormous number of Spanish terms and phrases, all of which are organized by categories. It is one of the only language-learning apps that focuses on content specific to a mother’s life at home with her child.
“We, as mothers, do stuff with our babies every day,” Passariello-McAleer says. “So, why not learn the language that I need to do my activities? As a mom, it’s impossible to sit down in front of the computer and do a module.”
“My daughter was one of those who would sleep for a maximum of 45 minutes at a time, Hoffman recalls. “I was constantly breastfeeding her and I kept wondering how could I possibly engage my mind? New parents don’t want to feel like they’ve stepped off a cliff. They want to feel like there is still some sort of intellectual engagement.”
The app organizes hundreds of different words and phrases alphabetically and into sections labeled with different routine household activities such as “Eating and Drinking” and “Getting Dressed.” Each term and phrase is accompanied by a voiceover, with the English version recorded by Hoffman, which allows readers to actively practice while multitasking.
In building their app, Passariello-McAleer and Hoffman gathered research on the benefits of learning a second language in a child’s first few years. They learned that knowing different languages not only helps one break cultural boundaries, but it also has many academic benefits.
“Kids who are bilingual end up being better test takers because they have different ways of connecting terms and concepts,” Passariello-McAleer explains. “They have an ability to cross-reference in their brain.”
It’s been two years since the duo placed their app on the market and Passariello-McAleer and Hoffman are now focused on social media and grassroots marketing. They prioritize community building through meetups, multicultural events and partnerships with the Austin Independent School District.
“At the meetups, it is so wonderful to see so many people who were both native Spanish speakers and then people who are self-taught and those who just have an interest in learning more,” Hoffman says.
With hundreds of users already engaging with their product, one of their top priorities is to spread MamaLingua’s mission.
“We’re not just a product company. We are building community online in Austin by recommending and creating resources. There is an emphasis on a global workforce,” Passariello-McAleer says. “MamaLingua is a way to give their kids a leg up in the world.”
“My goal as a mother is to ensure that my daughter has the exposure to languages to build the foundation,” Hoffman says. “This is a much bigger thing than just a product. It’s a tool at the center of a movement.”
MamaLingua is available for download on the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store.