One Global Gal

Whether instructing her audience in foreign languages or musing on the idiosyncrasies of gondola drivers in Venice, Sonia Gil has made a business out of her passion for language, travel, and culture.

“It’s hard to explain, but learning a new language makes you feel incredible. It’s like wearing a beautiful dress.” —Sonia Gil. Photo: Molly Lee.

The line stretching out the door of the Starbucks in Hangzhou, China, was not due to the morning rush. Those among the waiting were there for a casting call of sorts. Inside sat Sonia Gil, a woman on a mission to learn language her way, and the crowd was there to impress her.

When she had posted a call for Mandarin teachers around the city’s universities, Gil only expected a few people to respond. After two weeks of structured classes in Shanghai, she was fed up with the curriculum. She had hoped to learn how to speak to a cab driver and order coffee, not colors and nouns that weren’t getting her through everyday conversations. Gil needed instruction that took into consideration the specific difficulties an English-speaker faces, so she traveled two hours southwest, to Hangzhou, to immerse herself in a culture where less English is spoken and to find a teacher willing to take direction. Two girls agreed to translate Gil’s English lesson plans into Mandarin. Within six weeks, Gil was speaking conversationally and knew she had to share her results.

Letting Loose with Sonia Gil

What’s your favorite part of the day?
Early morning. When I get to workout very early, I love it. It makes it a great day.

What motivates you most in life?
Things that make me angry.

What’s your favorite word?
“Susurro,” which means whisper in Spanish.

What phrase should you learn first when learning a new language?
“This” and “that” and “Where’s the bathroom?”

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully “Sonia’s Travels” is a go-to source for travelers.

Who is your mentor?
My mother is very much a part of my life. She’s an incredible woman who’s not afraid to tackle things she knows nothing about. I think that’s why I’m here as an entrepreneur.

What is your personal motto?
Say no to mediocrity.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Learning Mandarin.

What language are you learning right now?
German, and it is a tough one. I want to congratulate anyone who has it as a second language.

Doubling as scientist and subject, Gil tested on herself what would become the Fluenz method of teaching language. Fluenz is a video-based instructional software that teaches six languages: Mandarin, Spanish—of both Spain and Latin America—French, German, and Italian. Each language is taught from the English-speaker’s perspective, and the program hinges on practicality and explanations, which sets it apart from competitors such as Rosetta Stone. Gil is Fluenz’s founder, an instructor of each language, and a dedicated globetrotter with a passion for sharing culture.

In retrospect, Gil’s path to becoming a purveyor of parlance is clear. Though her experience as a plant geneticist—she graduated from Cornell—may seem like another lifetime, every stop on the road map of her career has played a part in the success of Fluenz. Gil was born in Venezuela and grew up in a multilingual family. Relatives spoke Spanish first and English second, and one, Gil’s aunt, could transition between eight languages flawlessly. Despite being around bilingual speakers since birth, Gil is still amazed when she meets someone who knows another language. “It’s hard to explain, but learning a new language makes you feel incredible,” Gil says. “It’s like wearing a beautiful dress.”

In high school, Gil took French because of the beauty of the language’s spoken word. During the first few years of college, Gil worked on an Internet reality show with future business partner Carlos Lizarralde. Coming up in the dotcom era, was a hub of teen virtual interactivity. A far cry from the People’s Voice Webby Award-winning “Sonia’s Travels”—Gil’s web series video blog (vlog) boasting more than 12,000 subscribers— nevertheless shaped the YouTube personality that Gil’s viewers know today.

Gil moved to the United States when she transferred to Cornell, but remained close with Lizarralde. The two would have deep discussions about education and the digital medium. Gil was taking an online language class at the time and was frustrated by its presentation. Coming from a background of ambitious and inventive work with new media, she believed there had to be a better way to take advantage of technology.

After graduating, Gil did some soul searching. She started in the jungles of Venezuela. Working with an NGO, she provided medical help to remote villages. Then she went to Paris and brushed up on her French, but after buying Rosetta Stone, she felt cheated by the product. Gil’s next stop was China, but again she came back to the same realization: Language couldn’t be taught the same way all over the world. Gimmicks didn’t work. There needed to be a common ground between traditional instruction and modern presentation. Gil called up Lizarralde, and a grassroots effort began.

First and foremost, Gil decided that the product would be personal. Recalling her own frustrations with at-home products and in-classroom confusions, Gil wanted to cater to a smaller market whose demands she understood. She and Lizarralde recruited from a local university to find an editor self-taught in After Effects. Using the detailed notes Gil had taken during her studies in China, the team shot the Mandarin series in its entirety three times before getting it just right. Despite being strapped for funds and working with a handful of employees, Gil never doubted the program would be successful.

Harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit Gil inherited from her mother and a tenacity brought out in the face of a challenge, Fluenz quickly became a learning program that could live up to its creator’s own high standards. “If I had to create a very mass-produced, cheap product without the quality of service Fluenz provides, I don’t think I would be as good at it,” Gil says.

To call the Fluenz program a series of instructional videos is an understatement. Not only does the on-screen instructor interact with the viewer, but users needing further support can visit the online commons and interact with Sonia and other Fluenz users. Gil instructs many of the lessons, and because she had struggled through the languages herself, she is able to relate to users’ frustrations. As a case in point, Gil is currently in the midst of learning German, working to understand the difference between masculine, feminine, and neuter words. “I have to study a lot,” she says. “I have to write it out with a pen and paper, or else I won’t remember.”

Fluenz is defined by its use of media. Aside from the obvious use of video, Fluenz’s instruction is complemented by high-quality photography. Foreign film suggestions and first-hand traveler advice take at-home lessons and place them in exotic locales. “There’s something about culture that sparks interest in a person,” Gil says. “And you can’t separate that from the language.”

“There’s something about culture that sparks interest in a person.” —Sonia Gil

Though “Sonia’s Travels” was not developed specifically to address that connection, Fluenz users have been able to benefit from it regardless. Her job keeps Gil constantly on the move to collaborate with experts in other countries and learn new languages herself. She became somewhat of a travel guru for her friends and began the vlog as a digital documentation of her travel advice.

Every Monday and Thursday, Gil uploads a new video that guides viewers through cities by way of less obvious attractions. The program has highlighted Milan, Paris, Berlin, New York, and more. Gil helps viewers make the most of their travels, too, with advice on how to exercise in one’s hotel room and how not to look like a tourist. The vlogs maintain an upbeat tempo, aided by Gil’s playful narration. Mariana Hellmund, the decorated writer, director, and producer of “Sonia’s Travels,” uses interesting cinematography that has helped the series attract the attention of such media sources as Entertainment Weekly.

The Fluenz team is continuing to expand its library to include new languages, the next being Portuguese. Soon, Fluenz hopes to launch an online version of the software that will allow users to learn from anywhere with Internet. Another advanced program, currently in the alpha phase, will included exams and grades that can be tracked on a Fluenz personal profile. But no matter the heights Fluenz may reach, Gil never loses sight of the inspiration that started this journey. “Language opens all sorts of doors when you least expect it,” she says. “I’ve made friends because of it and had incredible experiences traveling because of it. It makes me feel like I’m a better person.”