Because of his love for traveling and teaching, Blake Maynard started reaching out to his Instagram followers to offer English language lessons via Skype calls.
After looking into an entrepreneurship minor at UT, where the application asked about a startup, he decided to turn those Skype calls into a business, which he now calls Backpack Languages.
“That was basically the seed that started the whole idea, and from there it grew very quickly,” said Maynard, linguistics sophomore and the founder of the service.
Backpack Languages offers language lessons from English, Czech, Spanish, Portuguese and American Sign Language through Skype and in-person lessons for $15 per individual session. More recently, they began to offer lessons through donation-based group workshops in the local Austin area. Students can pay what they want for the lesson they are offering.
“The goal is (accessibility),” Maynard said. “Not necessarily free, but accessible because you also don’t want to diminish the value or the levels of the teachers.”
The teachers who work with the service are either from UT or colleges in places such as Arizona and Russia. Maynard said he met the non-UT teachers who work with the program through his travels and mutual friends.
Jacob Cheek, communication sciences and disorders and neuroscience senior has taught American Sign Language for almost four years and said his purpose goes beyond a Skype call.
“I’m deaf myself, so I experience it firsthand and I know what it’s like to have a communication barrier,” Cheek said. “Because of my experience, I don’t want other people to feel the same, so I want to help people connect with others who share similar experiences as I do.”
Cheek said teaching his first American Sign Language workshop was nerve-wracking because he was afraid that his communication barrier might be an obstacle for students. He realized he had to be confident in his teaching style.
“I became more confident, aware and understanding from their perspective,” Cheek said. “It takes a while and it’s a slow step, so I have to be aware that they are not as fast of a learner as I am because I already know the language.”
Advertising sophomore Yunji Choi has lived in America for two years, and her first language is Korean. She is a transfer student at UT, which she said is more rigorous than previous colleges she has attended in America.
“(At first) it was so hard,” Choi said. “The lecture quality was much higher and it was hard to understand what they were saying and the classes were bigger.”
Choi said she has been doing lessons with Backpack Languages in order to improve her English and learn more terminology related to her major.
“It’s always cool to learn other languages,” Choi said. “Learning another language doesn’t mean you’re only learning the language, you learn culture. You can be friends with more diverse people from all around the world.”
Backpack Languages is planning on hosting more in-person and donation-based workshops in the Austin area for anyone wanting to learn a new language, Maynard said.
“I want the workshops to become something very UT, very Austin, and have quite a few people coming to them,” Maynard said. “It’s a place to meet people and connect in a way and a tongue that’s different than your own.”