Applied linguist turned tech entrepreneur Jarrad Merlo is taking English teaching out of classrooms and on to the internet – and millions are following him.
Jarrad Merlo travelled the world before returning to Melbourne to study a Master of Applied Linguistics at the age of 28. He lived, studied, and taught English in places as culturally diverse as Yogyakarta in Indonesia, Mysore in South India, Seoul in South Korea and East Arnhem Land in Australia.
These experiences as a young language teacher were pivotal in guiding Jarrad’s career direction.
“These vastly different places with vastly different (and sometimes surprisingly overlapping) languages really got me thinking about linguistics,” he said, “and the challenge of teaching English got me interested in applied linguistics.”
He returned home to Melbourne, largely basing his decision to study at the University of Melbourne on its reputation for linguistics, which he says “speaks for itself”.
In particular, he was interested in exploring the intersection of language learning and technology.
“At that stage in my life, classroom teaching felt limited”, he explains. “I wanted to scale my teaching through a tech start-up.”
Jarrad believes that learning a language is one of the hardest cognitive and anatomical (“think pronunciation”, he says) challenges that most people ever face, and is interested in how to make learning an additional language as efficient as possible.
While equipping himself with the fundamentals of second language acquisition through part-time study, Jarrad co-founded digital English language test preparation company E2Language, where he is now the director of teaching and learning.
With hindsight, he says, the subjects he took in research methods and statistics “would greatly improve [his] decision-making in business.”
Jarrad estimates that E2Language has helped close to a million students to date. It has also amassed about a million YouTube subscribers, with channels dedicated to helping students pass internationally recognised English language exams such as IELTS and TOEFL.
He’s currently working on a project called E2Classroom that will digitise language schools in the developing world.
“Online learning is not popular in most countries around the world, so what we’re doing is taking our platform, content and live teaching and ‘plugging it in’ to schools, giving students and teachers a superior English language learning experience”, he explains.
He also has plans to build the world’s first digital English school – a combination of “bricks and bits” – in India offering low-cost high-quality English education to anyone.
Despite having spent the past decade building online language courses, what Jarrad remembers most fondly about his studies are the face-to-face interactions – the irony of which is not lost on him.
“I actually loved hanging out with students in class. It was so much fun sharing in the classroom inspiration. I loved being in the library surrounded by students with everyone having their own interests tapping away on their keyboards making their futures. The teaching was especially enjoyable – when you look back at any schooling experience, it’s the people you remember most of all.”
Jarrad credits the theoretical focus of his masters degree for setting himself up for success in the emerging field of online language learning and test preparation.
"It’s a degree that’s recognised globally, and it provides you with a solid basis from which you can go in many different directions”, he explains. "I think what’s enabled E2Language to set itself apart from other companies is that the technology and content we develop has a strong theoretical foundation. If you want to set yourself apart – or your products apart – then you need to understand your subject deeply.”
Things have come full circle for Jarrad, who now guest lectures to the Masters of Applied Linguistics students on technology and language learning each year. But what he’s most proud of is the many students he and his team have taught through his business.
"That we have helped hundreds of thousands of candidates pass their high-stakes English tests is mind-blowing”, he says. "Some of the success stories we hear are touching. We’ve helped people stay in countries they love, leave countries they don’t love, get their dream job, or study in an English-speaking country.”
If the next few years look anything like the way Jarrad pictures them, he’s going to be busy.
“The future of just about everything is computer-based, and language forms the basis of that everything”, he says. “As a subject, language never gets boring – you never get to the bottom of it.”
For applied linguistics graduates about to enter the workforce, Jarrad would encourage them to think more broadly about where their degree can take them.
But would he encourage someone to start a tech company?
“Probably not. There’s too much luck involved in pulling it off, and too much hard work. But I would encourage people to look at avenues outside of the norm because they exist.”