The New Language of Software: Loren Siebert ’93

When many people have some extra time to spare, they might think about collecting coins, painting model airplanes, or even trying to write the great American novel.

When Loren Siebert ’93, computer science, took up a hobby, though, he decided to learn one of the hardest languages around – Arabic.

The first UMBC graduate to earn the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, Siebert recently developed a software, LinguaStep, that will be used to aid in instruction of the Arabic language programs at over 30 different universities. Indeed, this San Francisco resident has made a very grand entrance into the world of software engineering.

A Model Student

As a high school student, Loren swam with the Retriever Aquatic Club. He also completed some computer science research with a faculty member at UMBC, thus making early ties with the school.

“To go to UMBC just seemed like a natural extension,” he said. “When I got to UMBC, I knew I was going to be doing computer science, so all that was left was finding other stuff to do.”

Aside from being an excellent student, Siebert competed on the swim team, and worked with the Shriver Center’s Choice Program at UMBC, which provides tutoring and mentoring for at-risk children.

The Big Success

Upon Siebert’s graduation in 1993, he was awarded the competitive Marshall Scholarship to complete his graduate studies in the U.K. Loren earned his master’s in computer science at the University of Manchester and did research on technology policy at the London School of Economics. His master’s research earned him a mention in The Economist and in New Scientist in the same week.

“All of a sudden I went from being a 23-year-old doing computer science research to having all these people in the world wanting to talk to me about how interesting my work was,” he said. “It had a very commercial aspect to it.”

And that’s exactly where his education took him. As a software engineer and entrepreneur for more than a dozen years, Siebert has helped develop a variety of software and web sites, including Quote.com, a site that tracks world financial markets.

The LinguaStep Evolution

After breaking his leg while training for a triathalon, Siebert decided he needed a new hobby to sink his teeth into. He always had an affinity for languages, so he decided that would be a natural route to take. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in 2005 to study the famously difficult language.

“If I’m going to learn a language, I want to learn one of the hard ones,” said Siebert, who said he was, at first, overwhelmed by the language, which shares only 15 characters with English.

He had been researching different techniques used in learning languages, and so developed a software to help himself study. The result was LinguaStep, which focuses on helping students accumulate and retain a large vocabulary, but not waste time re-learning already familiar words. Similar to flash cards, students using LinguaStep can learn at their own pace, and test their knowledge of vocabulary as they need it. As students prove they have learned certain words, the software removes those words from the testing cycle.

Within a year, Siebert received an offer from UC Berkeley to teach an Arabic class, however he left after two semesters to work full time on LinguaStep. The software officially launched in fall 2007, and already more than 30 universities have contacted Siebert with interest in using his software in their Arabic language programs. He is currently planning on designing LinguaStep for other languages – including Mandarin, Korean and Japanese – to address a wider population.

“I want to see how far I can take it,” he said. “I’m a really curious person, and I think that’s something that was instilled in me at UMBC. I’ll always have a constant desire to learn and explore new ideas.”

– Melissa Gilden ’10
Originally posted March 2008

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