The Sicilian startup that wants to democratise the English language

6th Sep 2016
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Writing in English is a huge problem for more than a billion people around the world, and that number will keep growing. We started up Ludwig because we think that if English is supposed to be the universal language, then it should belong to everybody and not only to those born in English speaking countries. It is about giving everybody in the world the same opportunity to communicate.

This is how Antonio Rotolo explains why he founded Ludwig together with Federico Papa and Roberta Pellegrino, and developed it with Salvatore Monello, Francesco Aronica, Francesco Giacalone, and Antonino Randazzo.

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The limits of my world

Ludwig is named after the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, who said that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” It is a search engine that confirms whether a sentence is right or wrong by providing instances of whether and how it is used in prominent publications in English like Forbes, The Guardian and The New York Times. It is for those who already have a basic knowledge of the language but are unsure about how to put words or expressions into context.

Antonio explains,

Ludwig helps in the creative process and in learning by doing, because imitation is one of the brain’s most used methods to acquire knowledge. Our approach is not academic, we do not focus on grammar and never give a univocal answer. Rather, we put the user in the condition to critically understand the answer to his or her doubt.

The origins of the problem

Antonio, Federico and Roberta each have long experience in studying and working in English, and precisely because of this, they came up with Ludwig. “If you have to write a formal email to a professor, or if you have to submit an application for a project of the European Fund, or something of this sort, you need to be perfect in your writing. If you are a non-native speaker, it doesn’t matter how well read you are- you’ll always have some doubts.”

Ludwig started to solve this specific point because, Antonio shares, “existing tools like Google Translate, Word Reference, and others are very useful, but they are either unreliable or do not help me put words and expressions into context.”

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Sicilian at heart

Moreover, unlike any other platform, Ludwig has a fully Sicilian team. This is striking at a first glance because Sicily is known to be as rich in cultural heritage (including influences from North Africa, Greece, north and western Europe, and the Middle East), as it is poor in working opportunities. The little island, where Italian struggles to become the lingua franca and even local dialects differ from each other by some margin, is indeed an exceptional place to start a language technology platform.

Antonio is aware of this, but he is fast to point out that, “I do not want our story to be the one of a bunch of guys with cardboard luggage trying to disrupt the big tech world with their rudimental computers.” Rather, he likes to describe himself and his team as being at the same level as anybody else aspiring to become a useful and popular tech company. They received very good education both in Italy and abroad, even getting into institutions such as the Wharton Business School and MIT.

The archaeologist of tech

The idea for Ludwig developed out of Antonio’s rather unusual journey into reaserach. He started studying law, but soon realised it was not for him and switched to archaeology. He shares that upon hearing this news, his mother screamed, “Archaeo- what? That is not even a job!” Yet, despite maternal doubts, Antonio kept to his path. He went on to study at the University of Granada, then at MIT, and finally went to Germany to pursue his academic career.

Antonio says that archaeology is, in a way, highly relevant to the idea of Ludwig. “Archaeology is the study of society through material culture, and it has a very global approach to problems. I studied a little bit of everything, from historical sciences, linguistics, and geography to physics, chemistry, and botany.” Antonio argues that this variety of competencies made him, “A great specialist in nothing, who could therefore experiment in basically everything.” He found out that his skills could be applied not only to the past, but also to the present. The numerous perspectives he studied the human being from helped him look at communication from different points of view, leading him to focus on how to democratise the English language.

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Challenges and way ahead

Ludwig started with a budget of € 25,000 the team won at a competition sponsored by Telecom Italia on innovation technology in Sicily in 2014. They have also invested their own money and they have no plan to monetise the platform until they build a substantial community. “We want to get as many users as possible before launching the premium version, so that even if a small percentage of people opt for it, we’ll still make a margin.” So far, 65 percent of Ludwig’s 30,000 unique monthly users are from Italy because, Antonio explains, “We’ve had lot of media coverage here.” However, Antonio continues, the market is huge; it includes more than a billion people, mostly among the educated strata of non-English speaking countries.

He shares that it has been hard at times to keep going, “It has been a struggle to find initial funding, it is difficult when we are very far from each other, and we’ve had to keep our structure very slim to make everything smooth.” In other words, no foosball tables, no fancy days out, or other Silicon-Valley style initiatives, because the budget is an issue and everybody is busy in their own activities. After all, Antonio’s plans are different, “My ambition is not to create the next Google, I want to create a sustainable business that creates employment in Sicily.”

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To try out Ludwig, check their website.

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