A Social Media Platform Focused on Learning, Not Entertainment
It takes an amazing person to have a vision for something that cannot be seen.
The idea could educate and innovate the way the world communicates and is poised to shatter language, cultural, and religious barriers globally.
The story starts in Cedar City, Utah, where Marty Heaton was born. He grew up through the St. George school system, never knowing a world too far outside of the pristine canyon walls of southern Utah.
“Then I went on a mission to Brazil as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where I became fascinated with the world,” Heaton said.
This trip paved the way for another trip of fate.
“My uncle wanted to go back to the Middle East, but his wife wouldn’t go with him,” Heaton recalls, “I jumped at the chance.”
A Translation Idea is Born
The anxiety butterflies at the airport of San Francisco quickly turned to the wings of an idea that would change the course of his life.
Heaton explored Oman. It’s a mystifying world where the sea, a massive desert, and lush mountains thrive close to each other. A place where frankincense trees grow. A culture that defies stereotypes one might have.
A well-educated man, Heaton already had degrees from Dixie State University, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, and CU Boulder. He was about to learn something that you cannot find in a course catalog or syllabus.
It started with a simple “Hello.”
“Somehow, we started talking to some of the locals. And they just showed us around and started talking to us in English. They would answer in Arabic, and sometimes they would say Jebbali. They would just use all these different languages, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Heaton remembers with a look of inspiration still on his face 12 years later.
Jebbali is an unwritten language used by approximately 50,000 people in the world. There’s no formal instruction to learn it. It’s a language that is taught through campfire stories in an Arabian world. It’s not a language that can even be spelled. It’s just spoken. It’s a more complex version of your favorite family secret recipe passed down but never written.
A brother and sister invited him into their home. A Mormon man from Utah sat down with Muslim siblings, starting a connection that would bring new technological innovation and build lifelong friendships.
Heaton said, “When they invited me to their home, I was all by myself. I’m like, I don’t know if I dare go into the den. I went, and I never felt so comfortable in my life. And that was where it started.”
That was in 2009. Since then, Heaton has spent about a year of his life off and on in Oman through a series of nearly a dozen trips.
Heaton was inspired as he came back to the United States to be with his family, his wife Carrie, and their four children. While he spent the next few years percolating the idea of how to translate an unwritten language, he missed his adopted family in Oman as much as he loved his own family in Utah.
Heaton began trailblazing trips back and forth to Oman, bringing family members with him to let them better understand the question that kept him up at night— “How do I learn an unwritten language remotely?”
He watched as a mother of a family in Oman used her mobile phone for everything, even when she didn’t understand it verbally. The pictures and video helped tell the story.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then curiosity is the father of innovation, and Heaton is very curious.
An Entrepreneur With a Plan
As years went on, Heaton buckled down to figure out a way to translate this unwritten language into a way that could be shared with the world.
“It was a miracle. [They are] miracle workers as far as I’m concerned,” Heaton said.
Brady remembers when he first heard of this project. “This is my first chance to actually be part of something, to build something other than projects I’ve been working on in school. Once I started hearing about Marty and how he wants to help people, it really changed my perspective.”
Johnson chimes in with his own inspirational moment.
“Once I started to understand what we were doing, and especially once I’ve seen the passion that Marty has for it, I really started to get more involved,” Johnson said. “I want to see this through, and I want to help Marty achieve that part of it, but also feel like I’m making a service that can actually help people and make their lives a little easier.
How Learning an Unwritten Language Works
So tawq.in (read: Talkin’) was born through the computer expertise of Johnson and Brady with the oversight of Heaton. The website allows users to post videos and overlay a track of audio to better explain what is happening in the video. That, in itself, isn’t the novel part. It is what happens next.
Through crowdsourcing globally, people from all cultures, languages, accents, and experiences can add a post of translation to the video.
“You could have one post; let’s say it’s describing a sporting event. That one post could be translated into 100 different languages if there were just people watching and actually taking in translating it,” Johnson explains.
The big difference between tawq.in and other social media platforms is that tawq.in isn’t about endless streams of entertaining trends and cute animal videos. Once a video is posted, users of the platform can translate what is happening in their native language. For example, a video of someone giving a “thumbs up” could be translated by an American as “good job,” but someone in another county could explain that really means “up yours” in their hand gesture language.
“I’d like to consider ourselves a learning platform more so than like a social media/entertainment platform,” Johnson adds.
Heaton chimes in, “We take a segment at a time. So, that segment is determined by the user, and that becomes the parallel speech or the parallel sentence. So, it’s not like a whole post. It’s just a segment of that post, and then we just stack them in order.”
Heaton found there wasn’t much of a revenue stream from translating unwritten languages, so he expanded to include similar translation functions into coaching and education.
We asked the tawq.in crew if they ever took a moment to realize this could be their groundbreaking moment—the “Steve Jobs in the garage of his parents’ home” moment.
Heaton, humbly as ever, said, “Not really, I just think about the application of it. I think it would be amazing if we could learn to speak with each other throughout the world. And if this is a tool that can help, then that’s great.
What’s Next for this Translation Entrepreneur?
tawq.in is currently in beta format and being worked on through a collaboration with the Atwood Innovation Plaza at Dixie State University.
The next step? How to turn this passion project into a paycheck that can fund understanding of different cultures through a global crowdsourcing service for years to come.
What do the Jebbali people think of this global endeavor? It turns out they are just as humble as Heaton.
“If anything, it’s they don’t see the value of their own language,” Heaton replied.
Salma, a close friend of Heaton, lives in Oman. This is a woman raising ten kids. Her husband passed away ten years ago, and her son Yassir died in late 2021. She did send this message, in Jebbali, to anyone who reads this article, and it is proof that grief and support translate flawlessly.
The translation of her message is, “When you get sad, forget everything and go to pray. He’s my son; I cannot forget him. He will always be in my heart. When I feel I want to cry, I pray. God created him, and God has taken him. We will not live in this life forever. It’s like a station. We come to send a message, and then we leave this life.”
Heaton’s here to send a message, and it’s one that he’ll pursue until he leaves this life.
“When is it going to be done? Probably when I die…this is it for me for the rest of my life,” Heaton says with passion and determination in his visionary voice.
Learn More about tawq.in
You can try tawq.in out for yourself by going to the website and creating an account. Upload video, record your voice, add voice or text translations to other videos, and share with your family and friends to give it a test drive. The tawq.in team loves feedback and engagement from users.
The Atwood Innovation Plaza, located at Dixie State University in Southern Utah, exists to support entrepreneurs. The Atwood Innovation Plaza boasts numerous resources and personnel a student or community member may need to either launch or grow their business. To learn more, please visit: innovation.dixie.edu.