When you think of learning Chinese, you probably don’t envision your teacher as a Galwegian stilt-walking engineer.
But Richard McCurry seems to enjoy overturning people’s expectations.
“I didn’t mean to start an app startup. I just had an idea,” says the 35-year-old father-to-be sitting in his sunlit back garden in Mervue.
McCurry – a Galway native – is the founder and CEO at Newby Chinese, a cutting-edge Chinese language learning app.
It has taken him years to find his passion.
After getting an engineering diploma, he worked with special needs kids, trained as an acupuncturist, then did stilt walking and fire breathing as a street performer as well as working with an aerial dance company.
He first went to China while touring the world as an Arcana entertainer with the Volvo Ocean Race.
The group stayed in Qingdao for a couple of weeks in the wintertime.
“There was good beer – it was a German town, it was a German colony back in the day – and Chinese people were just cool. I really liked chatting to them,” McCurry explains.
On the plane over he learned a couple of words of Chinese and ended up being the de facto translator for his team during their stay.
He later ended up doing an Erasmus in Granada for a Spanish and Economics degree at NUI Galway.
But while in Granada he finally found his true passion – and it wasn’t Spanish or Economics.
“I didn’t do either,” he says with a wry smile. “I studied Chinese instead.”
McCurry ultimately canceled his Erasmus programme and stayed in Granada to study Chinese full time for a year.
After college he drove a car from Ireland to Mongolia, ending up in Harbin – in the northeast of China – and teaching English for 6 months.
When he first came back to Ireland a few years ago, he started “messing around” with the Chinese language.
“I realised that it’s a super simple language – there’s no conjugations, there’s no prepositions, there’s no plural. They reduce everything down…like ‘Me hungry’. That’s how the language functions. So when I came back I thought I could teach it to people differently.
“When you approach Chinese, it’s kind of like learning two languages. You learn a bit of the spoken, but then you forget it all. And you’ve no anchor points for creating memories or associations, or remembering pronunciation – and you can’t read.
“Or you go and tackle the characters on their own, and then you just feel like you’re memorising these long lists of characters, and forget them all. So I thought, ‘what if you could do both at the same time?'”
McCurry started playing with drawings, cartoons and animations and transposing them with sounds.
The result is a gamified cartoon Chinese language learning app – Newby Chinese – that revolutionises how the language could be taught.
According to the CEO, the app “will fundamentally change how people interact with Chinese.”
McCurry and his business partner Sam Redfern spent three and a half years developing the app with a Dublin animation company.
Last year they won recognition as ‘Best Emerging Business’ for Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme, as well as runner-up for ‘Best New Idea’ at Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur awards.
And although their app isn’t quite ready for individual consumers, demand is so high they’re already rolling out a version for schools – and just sold the first licence to a school in Galway for September.
“We can basically tackle the top thousand words in Chinese. And they say if you have 2,000 words you can read a newspaper,” McCurry says.
Right now they’re focused on attracting investments to keep tweaking the app, and McCurry’s confidence is high.
“We’ll get it,” he states calmly. “Everyone wants to learn Chinese because it’s the biggest market, it’s the most spoken language on the planet. It’s the second language after English on the internet. So everyone wants in but they don’t want to dedicate ten years of their life to memorising characters and tones and all that.
“All over the world, nobody’s cracked it. Because 94% of kids drop out as soon as it’s no longer compulsory. People have said it’s impossible to learn. Other people have said there’s no point unless someone comes up with a methodology of learning it for Westerners. So it just goes on and on.”
But McCurry is certain that he’s found the key to Chinese language learning. And it’s not just for kids – it’s for everyone.
As the young founder says proudly: “We have the best technology on the planet for learning the most spoken language on the planet.”