EllaVerbs – the language learning app with DCU origins

Róisín Cullen

Many entering the hallowed halls of the Helix on their very first day in DCU, may dream of meeting a significant other over goujons in NuBar, or at least establish a serious library relationship before exam season.

However, such opportunities are few and far between. Endless Zoom calls and Loop forums can lead to a student becoming nostalgic, maybe even romanticising the Henry Grattan building.

The brains behind EllaVerbs join in a call from sunny Valencia, many miles from Glasnevin. The former DCU students now call the Spanish city home.

The draw of learning a new skill has been a prevalent trend during all three lockdowns. Those hoping to hop on a cheap flight once vaccinated, are already turning to language apps whether they are in form of a Duolingo owl or EllaVerb’s all-knowing elephant symbol.

Jane French and Brian Hemeryck’s app is targeted towards those that struggle with Spanish verbs. The structured lessons and quizzes give the app a very focused feel where the user feels a sense of accomplishment as they progress through the course.

A progress report is available at the bottom of the screen. Unlike other language learning apps, EllaVebs is realistic and doesn’t assure the user that they are fluent after half an hour of learning.

While many Leaving Cert guidance counsellors, encourage you to pick a career for life at the age of seventeen, EllaVerb’s creators are prime examples of the importance of the road often not taken.

This road has led them to success upon success. DCU has always encouraged the idea that learning does not always have to take place in a crowded lecture hall.

Hemeryck reflected on the importance of society life in DCU, and the impact it has had on his life. “For me, I went into DCU and was so shy and I came out being able to talk to people, which was a huge thing for me. DCU broke me out of my shell… I met so many people, learned so much,” he said.

Society Life

The couple met at an ESoc event and cannot stress enough the skills that can be learned within society life.

Through organising events and networking they established the building blocks that would take them from Canada to Mexico and eventually result in an app with a five-star rating on the Apple store.

While the couple were in Mexico for six months Hemeryck realised that he was struggling with some of the grammatical elements of the language.

“Verbs were the things I found the hardest”, he explained. Luckily he did not have to look far for an excellent tutor, willing to work overtime. French has a business and languages degree from DCU under her belt, specialising in Spanish and French.

“Jane had put together spreadsheets for me, to help me learn”, explains Brian whose speciality was Business and Finance before the world of coding caught his eye.

“We’re a bit geeky”, the pair laugh.

Combining French’s design course with Hemeryck’s coding expertise made perfect sense, resulting in the birth of EllaVerbs. Learning Spanish is a necessity when living outside of the major tourist destinations.

“Here people don’t speak as much English as in Barcelona or Madrid. It was a nice place to come and learn… We can’t leave the house without speaking Spanish”, said Hemeryck.

Other popular language apps offer lots of vocabulary, but often neglect the conjunctions that make up every language.

Customers explain that EllaVerbs fills a gap that was missing in the market, something that was a little bit stricter and that works as a helpful guide through the tricky tenses and confusing conjunctions.

There are many conjunctions that do not exist in English and there is no easy way around them. “You just have to sit down and learn them. There was no app for that.”

EllaVerbs can of course be used in conjunction with other learning apps, audiobooks and classes.

Overcoming adversity

While initial lockdown signaled the end for small businesses all around Europe, the Irish couple were determined to make the best out of a terrible situation.

French works in tourism, an industry that was first to feel the effects of strict government lockdown restrictions and travel bans. A weekend and evening project, quickly became a full-time job.

Although the app did not start as a business, it quickly became one as popularity surged. “We built it for ourselves”, Hemeryck explains.

Their friends were eager to see the then basic app. They put the unfinished app on the app store, sure that an app with no reviews would go unnoticed.

“We put it up for two euro or something, with the thinking that nobody will download it because it’s not finished, explains French.

“No one buys apps” especially those with zero reviews, of this they were sure of. This assumption was immediately proved to be incorrect as customers continued to buy the app, even when the price was increased to twenty euro.

“By upping the price we were trying to deter them, because we weren’t ready. We were shocked. For us that showed a need”, remarks French. “What a great problem to have”, her partner laughs.

Although the pair have travelled extensively since graduating, they fit the friendly, easy going Irish stereotype to a tee. The couple’s positive energy can even transcend a glitching Zoom call.

In April (during the first of what was to become many lockdowns), businesses pulled out of Facebook advertising to save money. This was an ideal opportunity for EllaVerbs to take advantage of  cheaper ads on people’s timelines.

However, word of mouth has been the best method of promotion for the app. Downloads continued to grow during lockdown, in the U.S, the UK , Spain and Ireland.

DCU has always been about friends and connections, something that students dearly miss as they begin another semester of remote learning.

“A huge part of DCU for us was the atmosphere and the people”, Hemeryck says, expressing empathy with current students. Yet the couple’s advice to keep learning and reinventing yourself could come at no better time.

EllaVerbs was built in an effort to overcome obstacles. To this day its creators continue to find creative ways to reach their goals.

The next goal may well be to add French into the mix. “I’d love to expand it into other languages”, admits the designer of Ella Verbs . There is little doubt that this dream will soon become a reality.

The former ESoc members’ time in DCU was as much a personal journey as an educational accomplishment. “You can transform yourself. That’s what I learned in DCU. We can do anything”.

Róisín Cullen

Image Credit: EllaVerbs