Students taking Chinese and Japanese classes at UWM are getting a little extra help this year, thanks to the generosity of a linguistically-gifted alum.
Jake Gill is the CEO of Skritter , an app that helps students achieve fluency in reading and writing Japanese and Chinese characters. Gill, who graduated from UWM in 2011, majored in global studies and took eight semesters of Chinese language courses during his time at the university.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Gill knew one of the many casualties would be students’ language studies.
“We’re doing social distancing, there are stay-at-home orders, and people are not going to school. There’s this huge gap in the teaching curriculum,” he said. “How do you address character assessment? How do you help students practice their Chinese?”
In March, when lockdown orders first began, Gill and his team offered language teachers across the country a free trial of the app’s services to help them finish out their students’ academic year. But Gill wanted to do something extra.
“We’re seeing some really nice growth this year in this business, which I was not expecting at all,” he said. “It gives me more time and energy to think about how can I give back to the programs and the people in my life who have gotten me to the point where I am today.
“UWM was such an integral part in every opportunity that I’ve had since enrolling. So, I hit up my old Chinese teacher.”
That would be Lixin Cai, a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. Gill emailed her with an offer: Would UWM students like to have free access to the Skritter app for the 2020-21 school year?
Cai jumped at the chance, and took it one step further by designing a pilot program that would integrate Skritter’s learning tools with UWM’s first-year Chinese language curriculum.
The No. 1 character learning app
Skritter is a product of Inkren, Inc. The company was founded in 2008 by three college students who wanted a more efficient study tool for their Chinese and Japanese language classes.
Skritter started life as a website that taught character recognition and writing, but it required users to have their own tablet to plug into their computer in order to draw the characters. In 2012, the company developed an iOS application.
“That was the game-changer for Skritter,” Gill said. “Now, you didn’t need to go buy your fancy tablet; you could just use your phone. You could study from anywhere, and you could get that pen-and-paper feel just with your finger and the screen.”
Today, Skritter is ranked as the No. 1 character learning app in the world.
Unlike the Roman alphabet, where letter symbols are associated with particular sounds, Chinese and Japanese are character-based languages. The form of a character may have a meaning and a sound, but the meaning and sound are not necessarily related.
“We can’t just open a book in Chinese and sound it out. We’ve got to know the characters and what they mean,” Gill said. “This is a really complicated process for foreigners, but it’s not impossible and there are a lot of tips and tricks along the way.”
Skritter helps by having its users study “flashcards” that quiz them about a character, definitions, the pronunciation of the word, or how to write a character. The app emphasizes words that users struggle with while still reviewing phrases other words and phrases from time to time before they are forgotten.
“The end result is that our average user learns a character in about 90 seconds of total condensed study time in the application, and they learn them to an 87 percent retention rate,” Gill said.
Gill became the CEO of Skritter in 2018. Since taking over, he’s begun to steer Skritter to become more friendly to first-time Chinese and Japanese learners with a new, free guest experience and beginner-friendly content videos and lessons.
Giving back to his alma mater
Using the app came with a bit of a learning curve for UWM students. Gill created several videos to explain how to use the software, and there were some kinks that had to be worked out as everyone navigated both how to use the app and how to attend classes remotely at the start of the semester. Gill reported that he received some valuable feedback from UWM students and he plans to incorporate their advice to improve the app for users around the world.
He has also joined them for discussions about his career path and sat in on a virtual language table, an informal gathering for speakers of all levels to practice their Chinese together.
Talking with his former teachers and their students felt “like a reunion” for Gill, who added that, “It just brightened my day to see how enthusiastic students were about learning Chinese.”
“If I can inspire one person in the program to go on and learn Chinese to an advanced level, then mission accomplished for me,” he said. “It’s been a blast. I would love to continue this moving forward. If you’re in the Chinese or Japanese program at UW-Milwaukee, you should get access to Skritter. Without that language program, there’s no me and there’s no Skritter (as it looks today). So many people are in need right now, so I want to pay it forward in some way.”
Through August 2021, UWM Chinese and Japanese students as well as UWM alumni can access the Skritter app for free.
1. Go to skritter.com/signup
2. Enter the activation code MKE2021
3. Download the Skritter app on your smartphone
4. Begin learning to read and write Chinese and Japanese!
Meet Jake Gill
Jake Gill’s dream was to be a Chinese teacher. It came true, but not quite in the way he expected.
Gill is a native of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He graduated from high school in 2003, but wasn’t quite ready for college. Instead, he and a friend founded their own car business. It took a lot of hard work, and even some international travel – in a search for a manufacturing facility, Gill even went to live in Indonesia for a month. He picked up the language surprisingly quickly.
“It was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t an idiot and I could learn a foreign language,” he recalled. “I thought I was a linguistic failure in high school. Turns out that in order to learn a language, you have to speak it with people.”
When the business went under, Gill decided to get his degree. UWM was an easy choice; it was close, both of his parents were alumni, and Gill had several friends who were going through the university’s Chinese and Japanese programs. Those languages in particular called to him.
Gill jumped a few majors before settling on Global Studies, a program that allowed him to both study language – he picked Chinese – and study abroad, once in Taiwan and once in Beijing. It was at UWM that his dream to be a Chinese teacher was born. He indulged it by serving as a teacher at a local weekend school catering to the children of Taiwanese parents.
He also received a Fulbright Scholarship through the Associated Colleges of China that allowed him to participate in a six-week teacher training course, entirely in Chinese.
“While I was there, I met this guy, Ben, and he was a writer for Skritter. I was blogging on my own and having fun, and he recommended me to Skritter,” Gill said. “I got an email from the guys who ran Skritter saying, ‘Hey, you want to write for us?’ I thought that was a perfect fit for making a couple of extra bucks while I was in school, so I started writing for them in 2011.”
He didn’t stop there; over the next few years, Gill began doing app testing and institutional sales for Skritter as well.
Gill graduated from UWM in 2011 and started coursework towards a Master’s degree. A few years into his studies, the founders of Skritter wanted to make the transition out of their company to pursue other projects. They hired Gill as Skritter’s new director.
“I was a little bummed, because I really, really wanted to be a Chinese teacher. For a week, I was kind of sad. But at some point, (I realized) I still get to teach in some way because of what Skritter does,” Gill said.
Like all great heads of tech companies, Gill joked, he dropped out of his Master’s studies to handle the running of Skritter. He oversaw every area except for programming, and had big ideas to move the company in exciting new directions. But to do that, he needed a little more ownership.
I made a push and and I became the CEO,” he said. “So, blogger to CEO in about seven years.”
He credits UWM as the foundation of his success. Faculty members like Lixin Cai nurtured both his business sense and his language skills. One lecturer in particular, Andrew Olson, was a non-native Chinese speaker and demonstrated that non-native speakers like Gill could be good at Chinese.
“Early on, I had a really nice support structure at UWM,” Gill said. “UWM was such an integral part in every opportunity that I’ve had since enrolling.”
By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science