Learning the Lingo: An Interview with One Third Stories

Indie InnovationIn this series of conversations with independent publishers, we’ll hear from some truly innovative people. These people are making waves, throwing shapes and shaking up different areas of the publishing industry.

It’s rewarding to speak with entrepreneurs who love what they do and believe in their mission. Last month, I was alerted to the presence of One Third Stories, a brilliant new publisher co-founded by Alex Somervell and Jonny Pryn. This inventive London-based duo are revitalizing language learning for kids with their unique storybooks.

This week, I spoke to Pryn about what drives them and how they view the industry.

Hi, Jonny. Thanks for taking the time to chat to me. Firstly, could you tell us a little about One Third Stories, and what you’re all about?

One Third Stories is all about encouraging children to take their first steps in another language. We do this by creating storybooks that gradually introduce new words in a foreign language in contexts that make the meaning immediately apparent. For example, “the little girl looked up into the sky and saw the bright, round soleil.”

As the story progresses, words become phrases, and phrases become whole pages. To put it simply, they are books that start in one language and end in another. We call it The Clockwork Methodology™ because it was inspired by a technique Anthony Burgess used in his novel A Clockwork Orange.

I founded the company with my friend and business partner, Alex [Somervell]. We went through the Ignite 100 Accelerator up in Newcastle and have just moved back to London to set up shop in a very edgy office in an abandoned hospital courtesy of the amazing folks at Camden Collective.

Sounds like a fascinating niche in principle, but children’s books and education publishing are both competitive markets. What makes you different?

For starters, I’d like to think we’re the first people who have been inspired to write a children’s book by one of the most violent, dystopian and controversial novels ever written.

Aside from that, we’re very keen to establish ourselves outside of the realm of “educational publishers.” We’ve seen that kids learn best when they are completely engaged with the material, which means veering away from anything dry and overtly educational, and creating books that are just plain enjoyable with a successful learning outcome as a byproduct.

For me, the way we’re creating that content is what sets us apart. The book we’re working on at the moment has 1522 authors and counting. Oh, and they are all children. The ideas they come up with are incredible—dinosaurs in fancy leather shoes, a cup of verbal tea for a character who has lost her voice, a talking cabbage—and we’re using them to inspire the story as much as we can. As well as ensuring that kids love the finished book, it’s been an opportunity to celebrate their creativity and get them practicing their writing, both in English and other languages.

One Third StoriesYour focus is on language learning, so you’re clearly advocates of multilingualism. How important is it for kids to learn new languages in the modern world?

People are travelling more than ever, cities are becoming increasingly diverse and more and more jobs are requiring people to think internationally. Knowing another language is certainly an attribute that’s going to give kids a head start as they grow up.

It’s not just about the practical applications, though; learning another language has all sorts of cognitive benefits, too. People who know another language are better at multi-tasking, demonstrate improved memory, are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.—the list goes on. Alex speaks a rather impressive four languages and he can also attest to the social benefits and the different perspectives he gains of the world.

On top of that, we want to foster a genuine love of languages in the next generation. When I was a kid, I hated French lessons. I found it hard and boring and my teacher had a really strong cockney accent, so I dropped it as soon as I could. Then, when I was 20, I started going to Paris pretty regularly. I just found everything about the language fascinating and wanted desperately to communicate with the people there. I’ve spoken to so many people who share that feeling of regret, and we’ve made it our mission to stop that cycle being repeated.

And how does storytelling benefit kids in their learning?

Alex and I both worked in education before we started One Third Stories, and we’ve been privileged enough to watch a lot of fantastic teachers ply their trade. The best teachers are storytellers: they craft a narrative, hold the attention of the room, provide examples that stick in your brain. It worked for Aesop, and it’s a method that still holds up today!

From a language learning perspective, I think it’s key. When you speak to people who know more than one language, they can often tell you the exact moment a precise word stuck in their head because it’s forever associated with a German market or a funny Italian joke or a particularly good dinner in Shanghai. Embedding vocabulary in stories does exactly the same job of creating strong associations that result in much better retention.

Besides, if you can learn something through stories, you’re getting a pretty great two-for-one deal on education and entertainment. That’s a pretty great selling point for academically reluctant kids. We like to call it “learning via stealth.”

You’ve kicked things off with Spanish, but do you have plans for expansion to many other languages?

We started off exclusively with Spanish because of Alex’s Paraguayan roots, but the story we’re working on right now is going to be available in several different languages. Eventually, we’d like to be able to offer resources in any language. Alex even promised somebody we’d make a Klingon version once, but I’ve got my heart set on doing Elvish first.

Jonny Pryn and Alex Somervell

Jonny Pryn and Alex Somervell

Doing something so unique must attract attention. Are the big publishers taking note? If so, how are they reacting?

Kate Wilson, the founder of Nosy Crow, tweeted us after an event once. I absolutely love the way they combine technology and reading, and she’s a bit of a publishing hero of mine, so it was a big day!

We’ve also sat down with people at big publishing houses and had some interesting conversations. They’ve been incredibly receptive to our ideas and been able to provide some expert insight. We’re definitely going to look at our relationships with larger publishers properly down the line, but right now we’re focusing on making the story. We’re working on something that children and parents can love.

What are your hopes and dreams for the next few years?

Alex and I bandy about the words “language learning revolution” when we’re in the office together, and that’s only partly a joke. The most successful language learners find ways of constantly improving their skills in their everyday lives and we’re looking to make that a reality for everyone, especially children.

I hope our stories can be a way for people to discover a real passion for languages from an early age and see that you don’t have to be able to talk about everything fluently in a perfect accent before you open your mouth which, I think, is a trap we often fall into.

How do you see the role of digital in impacting your progress, either in a positive or negative sense?

I think there is always going to be the need for a really magical bookshop and opening a real, hardback book for a bedtime story. We certainly don’t want to contribute to their downfall! I don’t think the digital and physical realms should be mutually exclusive for readers. Instead, creators should look to make those worlds complimentary.

Imagine reading an amazing book that slowly introduces Spanish words. Then you open up an app and get to really explore that world, learning more vocabulary as you go. You can shape the outcome of the story by talking into the microphone with your newfound language skills. As you get more confident, more of that world is in the target language, until a story that started in one language in a physical book is written completely in another on a tablet screen. That’s a digital revolution we’re pretty excited about.

And finally, what advice would you pass on to other startup publishers in today’s world?

The less time it takes to get out of your bunker and show people what you’re working on, the better the end product will be. It’s easy to feel that, as a publisher, you can only reveal something when it’s perfect, especially when you’re competing with huge corporations with plenty of resources and expertise.

The reality is that your readers will probably find the spit and sawdust approach has a rustic charm and will be flattered you took the time to talk to them about how you can improve your offerings. Most importantly, you’ll end up with something that people actually want to read!

A huge thanks to Jonny for speaking to me, and best of luck to the guys in the future. You can learn more about One Third Stories on their website and you can follow them on Twitter.

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Matt Goolding

About Matt Goolding

Matt Goolding is Head of Digital Marketing at Ribbonfish, a London-based company that creates cloud enterprise apps for major publishers in the UK and the US. Ribbonfish develops tools to help publishers adopt an agile approach, improve processes, and build a closer bond with their customers.


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