Around the world to Muskegon: How Jake Deutmeyer is supporting foreign language speakers in West Michigan

Jake Deutmeyer during his travels in Venice. Photo courtesy of Jake Deutmeyer

After traveling across the globe, Jake Deutmeyer has settled down in Norton Shores—and now he’s hoping to bring the world to West Michigan. Or, at least, help foreign language speakers to flourish here. A fluent speaker of Spanish and German, Deutmeyer has a passion for language, travel and immersing himself in other cultures, and he’s hoping to spread some of that love through his relatively new company, Fluent Find. The business connects language learners with fluent speakers of that language throughout West Michigan, including here in Muskegon. While it’s less than a year old, the company is already gaining traction; in November, Deutmeyer won Start Garden’s 5×5 Night competition, a business contest that aims to support local entrepreneurs. Here, Deutmeyer speaks with us about his new business, his time living in Madrid, an upcoming Italian cooking class at Kitchen 242, working in the spice trade, heading to Mexico to get married, and more.

Muskegon Times: First, the basics! Can you tell us what Fluent Find does as a company?

Jake Deutmeyer: Fluent Find is an online platform that connects language learners to local opportunities to practice that language in a fun way with a fluent speaker near them. You can find our suggested public events listed at fluentfind.net or you can send us your own requests to info@fluentfind.net.

MT: When did you launch the company and what inspired you to start it?

JD: I started the company in late April of 2018, but I finally got my website up and fully launched around October thanks to LongerDays.com (a company based in downtown Muskegon).

I studied economics as an undergrad and management for my Master’s. I love seeing patterns and trends emerge in business and see how people can come up with creative solutions to address problems. I wanted to help solve a problem I really feel is important: making it easier for regular people to pass on their own language to someone else, and I felt like it was time for me to test my own ideas.

MT: You live in Norton Shores? Is the company also headquartered there?

JD: Yes, I am slowly growing my business and have been able to spearhead the operations on my own and from our home thus far. As part of my 5×5 Night victory in November, I do have access to temporary membership at Start Garden in downtown Grand Rapids and am waiting for the right moment to take advantage of that location.

MT: You grew up in Iowa? How did you come to live in the Muskegon area?

JD: Yes, I did! I am a proud Iowan and a huge Iowa Hawkeye fan. I met my fiancé while she was in dental school at the University of Iowa and I was working near Iowa City. After she graduated, she had a great offer to come to work at Hackley Community Care, and I eventually packed up and followed her to start this new chapter of life. We love Michigan and try to take full advantage of the great outdoors here (we got engaged at North Manitou Island last fall!).

MT: How did living in Madrid shape your life?

JD: Living in Madrid completely changed my life. I grew up an Iowa farm boy, but had an interest in languages because of my German heritage. Moving to a metropolis like Madrid was eye-opening and exciting! More than anything though, I chose to study abroad a full academic year instead of a semester, which allowed me to develop some roots in Madrid and start to have fun experiences with local natives. I lived with other European students and got to exchange perspectives on life as I was becoming a young adult. I loved the international connection so much that I decided to go right back after graduating at the University of Iowa and do a Master’s at IE Business School in Madrid. There again, I gained a deep understanding of world culture from my classmates. I was able to feel “at home” in new places because of my knowledge of the Spanish language, culture, and attitude.

Jake Deutmeyer while traveling in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Jake Deutmeyer

MT: In addition to Spain, you’ve also traveled to numerous other countries! Can you tell us about a travel experience that changed how you see yourself and/or the world?

JD: I have been very fortunate to see many places around the world. Apart from the places I saw in Spain and Europe, during business school, I attended a Global Immersion Week program where we got to tour and take a look behind international businesses operating in Shanghai. After I returned to Iowa, I worked for almost three years in the spice trade (no, they don’t travel on wooden ships anymore) and connected daily with suppliers from all parts of the world.

After you experience life in all areas of the globe (and I still have a lot to see yet!), you begin to see areas of comparison between “developing” countries and “developed” countries in terms of lifestyle. I found it so interesting on my trips to visit farmers in India, because, despite some of my American peers saying how dirty or disorganized it was, in a way it reminded me of the way my grandparents talked about growing up on the farm in Iowa. Agriculture was the focus of the whole family, local traditions were deep, and money was hard earned. Youth become less involved as the cities pull in less physical and higher paying jobs with newer technology. The same patterns can be seen repeated across time and cultures, and I find this fascinating. We are not all that different in the end, despite our traditions and appearances. This only becomes more apparent the more you travel and speak with others from different cultures.

MT: In addition to English, you speak Spanish and German? What drew you to those languages?

JD: I grew up in a part of Northeastern Iowa that is very German in background. Despite being the third generation living in the U.S., all my grandparents grew up with German being spoken in their homes. My grandfather Laverne often said a few lines in German to us grandkids, and I suppose that struck an interest in me. I became good friends with many Germans later, and picked up most of what I know from traveling to visit them and staying with their friends and family.

Spanish was the only language being taught at my little Catholic high school, and I enjoyed the classes and teachers. Once I traveled to Spain for the first time and began to become friends with Spaniards, I really loved the warm culture and spirit that came with the language and culture. I was determined to immerse myself as much as possible.

MT: Living in the U.S., how do you keep up with your Spanish and German language skills?

JD: In Spanish, I have no shortage of opportunities to practice with my fiancé, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, her family in Chicago, or any of my friends abroad. The hardest part is finding opportunities to speak it though, because I often write friends abroad, and my fiancé and I can switch back and forth with English a lot. This was why, originally, I created a Spanish language group on Meetup, a general interest group app/website, back in Iowa City. Despite having great interest and membership on the app, I wasn’t getting good attendance in person and often the dynamic of a group conversation was hard to manage if there were mostly beginners and few fluent speakers present. It led me to focus more on a one-to-one approach between an intermediate and a fluent speaker, with some sort of event or activity providing more of a basis of conversation. I did this for over a year with a gentleman in Iowa City who wanted to improve his Spanish speaking ability, and I helped him practice his conversation skills once a week at different restaurants across town. I realized that this was really something fundamental that the language market was missing and formed Fluent Find around my experiences.

German is difficult for me to find an outlet to practice speaking, so I try to improve my vocabulary through apps like Lingvist or DuoLingo, and listening to daily news like the Tagesschau. I hope to find more German speakers in West Michigan who are interested in practicing with someone like myself or a Fluent Find customer.

MT: I’ve always wished that we began learning other languages at a much earlier age in the U.S. What do you think of foreign language education in the U.S. and what would you like to see change/continue?

JD: Based on my experience and accounts from others learning languages in high school here in the States, the classes are often a joke because the teachers don’t make the classroom a fluent environment. If two fluent English speakers promise to speak in Spanish together and one switches, it is very hard to go back to Spanish again. Teachers need to demand that kids ditch English at the door of the classroom and help eliminate attitudes about “sounding funny” when people are actually pronouncing things correctly.

At the same time, it is very hard to be motivated as a teenager to try to learn a new language if you have no interest or context in it. I think parents should try to expose their children to languages at a young age and show them that languages are beneficial, even though English is often “enough” to communicate with a large chunk of the world. It may not need be an expensive immersion program, but perhaps a summer course, international pen pal, or exchange student. There are multiple studies showing correlated benefits in learning of all areas once someone has learned another language.

MT: Where does Fluent Find focus its efforts? Here in West Michigan, or elsewhere? How many people do you work with in this area? What languages do you see being spoken here, and which languages seem to be growing in the region?

JD: Since I am trying to prove my concept and establish a test market to later expand to the rest of the country (hopefully), I am only focusing on West Michigan events. I have concentrated more on Grand Rapids, with 14 people signed up either as fluent speakers to help others or as learners. Surrounding areas have been starting to pick up though as well, and I have six users in Muskegon, and a couple in Holland and East Lansing. The majority of interest has been from fluent Spanish speakers looking to help others, but I also have fluent speakers of Korean, Mandarin, Italian, Portuguese, and English available to help. The demand side is the main focus of my growth now, which I hope to put my $5,000 prize money [from the 5×5 Night competition] towards. So far, I have had active customers learning Italian and English, but there is also interest in French, German, and Arabic.

I have been trying to connect with student groups and populations on campuses here in West Michigan, and I think it is apparent that some Asian languages are having some growth. Japanese and Korean are popular and more people are studying there on programs. Without a doubt though, Spanish is the most demanded overall.

MT: How do you think this—connecting people who speak languages other than English—helps to build bridges/break down barriers between people/communities? Can you give an example of how you’ve seen this connect people who may not have interacted otherwise?

JD: The main goal of my initial client back in Iowa City was to be able to connect with the Latino population better in his ESL teaching and daily life. He was ambitious in making an effort to do so, but I think often language learners on DuoLingo or other online services tend to forget that there is likely someone within a few miles of you who speaks that language. Language has more than just letters and words, it also has cultural perceptions built into it.

While Fluent Find is young and has many connections yet to be made, I have seen a large interest from the Latino community about helping others who are enthusiastic about learning Spanish from them. I did an interview in Spanish with La Mejor Radio in Wyoming, Michigan and had several callers say that they were pleasantly surprised at how well I could speak and that it was nice to see someone pushing to expand language learning rather than focusing on English being the one and only language in the U.S. While I highly recommend that all in the U.S. speak fluent English for practical reasons, I think there is much to be gained in learning another language for cultural reasons here. My grandfather was the last of my family to speak German, and similarly, some Hispanic families have begun to lose Spanish as they solely focus on English with their children.

MT: Fluent Find and The Italian Spoon are teaming up to offer a “Cooking in Italian” class at Kitchen 242 on Feb. 26. What inspired the two groups to connect and offer this? What are you hoping people will take away from the experience?

JD: This really grew from a conversation I had with a local real estate agent, who is excited about improving her Italian. From there, I began to brainstorm and look at ways to help her become immersed in the language while staying here in Muskegon. I found Chef Sofia Occhialini from The Italian Spoon, and she loved the idea of doing a class in Italian.

This is a really unique experience to bring West Michigan together around Italian culture. We have a wonderful, vibrant chef here in Muskegon with Sofia Occhialini and the food knowledge that she possesses. Through my business efforts and marketing, I have also contracted several fluent Italian speakers that will be coming to the event and adding to the experience by helping Italian learners converse and translate. Above all, I want people to feel like for one hour and a half, they might just be in a kitchen in Italy with some locals when they haven’t even had to get on a plane to do so.

MT: Are you planning to do other events? What else is on the horizon?

JD: I am hoping to do more of this style of Fluent Find organized events, and this will be sort of a test. Chef Sofia is interested specifically in doing more Italian events with us, either cooking or discussing Italian culture.

I am really looking to engage the Spanish speakers that I have signed up as well, so that may mean putting on some kind of fun event either in Muskegon or Grand Rapids with Spanish being the focus. I have several ideas, but will base them around the interest in the next phases of my business efforts. I am certainly open to ideas and will supply wherever there is demand!

MT: Have you found there are needs for translation services in the Muskegon area? So, for example, at schools, hospitals and elsewhere?

JD: I have heard anecdotally through others that yes, there is a need for translators here. There are several companies in the Grand Rapids area that focus specifically on contracting certified translators for places like hospitals. Also, I have connected with a few business owners in Grand Rapids who lack the business personnel fluent in Spanish to be able to expand their operations into the Latino community. These are both areas of interest for Fluent Find, but not at the core of the idea since we provide more informal, entertaining options for immersive experiences to learn. However, I am looking at trying to enter these areas in the future.

MT: If you could become fluent in another language, which one would it be?

JD: A computer language for programming code. While I would love to learn all the major (human) languages someday, being able to be fluent in code would help me in so many ways with the technology ideas I want to develop.

MT: Where’s the next country you hope to travel to?

JD: Mexico! My fiancé and I are getting married there in November.

MT: Anything else you’d want our readers to know?

JD: Learning languages takes dedication, but it can change your life positively in so many ways. Fluent Find hopes to makes this experience more fun, affordable, and accessible to you. If you know anyone who is trying to become fluent in a language, please send us an email at info@fluentfind.net and we will try to help them. We want to be a part of the growth that Muskegon has and connect West Michigan with the world.

You can search our events at fluentfind.net. We incentivize our fluent speakers to join these events by providing them an hourly commission, with prices to learners ranging from $13 to $24 per hour. Other local tutoring alternatives can cost up to $70 per hour.

For our readers who speak Italian, Fluent Find and The Italian Spoon are teaming up to offer a cooking class with Chef Sofia Occhialini (who, by the way, has been a big source of inspiration for the incoming Nipote’s Italian Kitchen, a restaurant that will soon make its debut in downtown Muskegon).  The class will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 26 from 6-7:30pm at Kitchen 242 in downtown Muskegon. This event will be held in Italian, and the chef will teach you how to make ravioli ripieni ai formaggi (cheese ravioli). There will be other fluent Italian speakers present to help you learn additional vocabulary and practice your conversational skills. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.

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