Jenny Cho ’14 and Yongmin Cho ’19 were recently named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Changemakers Addressing Asia's Biggest Social Problems.”
Jenny Cho and Yongmin Cho, along with University of Pennsylvania graduate Quan Nguyen, co-founded ‘SAY’, an online platform that pairs students interested in learning Korean with Korean senior citizens who teach them the language. SAY is an acronym that stands for seniors and youth.
Jenny Cho serves as the Chief Executive Officer, Yongmin Cho is the Chief Operating Officer, and Nguyen is the Chief Marketing Officer.
Yongmin Cho explained that the idea for the platform came out of his experience working in a senior welfare center in Seoul during his mandatory service in the Korean military.
“There are many of these centers and there are always a shortage of people helping seniors out, so people like me were stationed there,” he said.
There is a large aging population in Korea, with people 65 years and older comprising 14 percent of the population, according to Nguyen.
“What we see is an influx of more people who are older and retiring, and society is not able to support this type of population,” Nguyen said.
Once Yongmin Cho got to know the retirees in the senior center, he realized that they were an untapped source of talent. He decided to give the retirees an opportunity to put their language skills to use by helping teach University students Korean.
“So many of the retirees’ talents and experiences and the history they lived could be shared and resourced in an economic way by empowering them as language tutors,” Yongmin Cho said.
In 2014, Yongmin Cho began arranging video calls between University students who were learning Korean and retirees in the senior center where he worked. With time, the program expanded to Yale University.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have our own curriculum and we weren't really training our seniors to become really good tutors because it was just a volunteer project,” Jenny Cho explained. “Even then, when there was less structure, the students were enjoying the classes so much and they were connecting with the tutors, like they were becoming friends.”
In 2017, after seeing the success of the project, Yongmin Cho, together with Jenny Cho and Nguyen, decided to expand the program in order to provide more opportunities for both learners and tutors.
“We wanted it to be accessible to everyone who had a computer and had a desire to learn Korean,” Yongmin Cho explained.
Jenny Cho said they realized that if they made the program into a business, they could create actual paid jobs for the seniors.
Currently, SAY works by matching language learners with tutors based on language needs and career interests, a system that allows tutors to serve as mentors in addition to teachers.
“Some students are interested in art, so we have teachers that have 30-plus years of working in the art industry or entertainment industry,” said Nguyen. “Other students want to go into business, and we have teachers who are ex-CEOs or have worked for a large conglomerate, and they share those experiences with our students.”
There are many reasons why retired senior citizens teaching Korean provides language learners with unique benefits.
“Because of our social mission, we actually have this really special competitive advantage because we hire really highly educated senior retirees, and these retirees have 20-30 years of experience in various industries,” Jenny Cho said.
“Another thing is because our teachers are retired, they usually have a lot of free time. They put a lot of time into preparing for their lessons. This is purely out of just interest and passion, so I think that’s what contributes to really really high quality tutoring,” Jenny Cho added.
A typical SAY session entails a one hour video call involving a specific topic that the student selects. The student learns grammar and vocabulary, but a large part of the session entails conversing with a native speaker with Korean.
“We see a lot of value in [speaking practice] because there’s a lot of content out there that you can use to self-study and you can memorize vocab and study grammar, but a lot of students come to us saying ‘I still don’t know how to speak and I can’t put sentences together,’” she continued.
SAY worked with professional curriculum designers to make standardized curriculum for the students and the tutors. As opposed to traditional language learning, SAY guarantees customized learning and one-on-one attention.
“It’s very difficult to find that sort of personalized learning for the price that we offer these days,” Yongmin Cho explained.
Senior citizens greatly benefit from sharing their language with others because they gain a renewed sense of purpose and the ability to share their culture with language learners.
“I think that makes them incredibly happy and proud to not only connect with the young people, but represent Korean culture and share that culture though the form of teaching Korean,” Nguyen said.
The co-founders of SAY hope to expand their program to other countries and other languages.
“We’re in talks with a subsidiary of Samsung to work with their team to create video content for thousands of employees in Vietnam. We hope to succeed in Vietnam with our video content and then expand that to maybe more Southeast Asian countries,” Nguyen explained.
“After we really scale up and capture a lot of the Korean language learning market, we want to be able to do that for different languages, and in doing so, help retirees all over the world, not just Korea,” Yongmin Cho said.