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App for English pronunciation wins over learners

Released at: 07:51, 03/03/2019

App for English pronunciation wins over learners

Photo: Viet Tuan

One education startup applies AI technology to help English learners with their pronunciation.

by Ngoc Lan

Learning English through apps is not a new idea in Vietnam, but in 2018 Vietnam’s startup community saw the arrival of the ELSA app, or “English Language Speech Assistant”, which raised $3.2 million for its AI-assisted language learning platform. This pre-Series A round of funding was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, which invests in post-seed stage startups in Southeast Asia.

Unlike other platforms that focus mainly on teaching grammar and vocabulary, ELSA uses AI and speech recognition technology to help language learners with their pronunciation. “Our main focus is always on making the best product possible with better technology and a more engaging experience for users, while continuing to grow user numbers around the world,” Ms. Van Dinh Hong Vu, Co-Founder and CEO of ELSA, told VET.

AI app in 4.0 era

ELSA’s strength lies in its proprietary AI technology in speech recognition, acting as a personal virtual pronunciation coach that gives instant and precise feedback on every sound you make. The app operates by listening to the learner’s voice and then comparing their pronunciation with the correct English pronunciation to provide feedback. 

It also provides suggestions on how speakers can improve certain elements of pronunciation by explaining how to shape their mouth or tongue. Users can download the app on Android and iOS easily, and ELSA then offers five-minute assessment test to identify the user’s pronunciation proficiency and their challenges. This information is then used to build a personalized curriculum, tailored to the user’s current abilities.

There are around 600 lessons and more than 3,000 words on the ELSA app in a variety of topics, such as hotels, holidays, family, food and drinks, travel, entertainment, and education. The app is updated regularly with seasonal and timely topics, like lessons featuring holidays or even the latest movies. Each lesson is just two minutes and users complete five exercises that get progressively harder, including pronunciation of words, phrases, and sentences.

ELSA recently developed a tool called Teacher Dashboard to help teachers integrate ELSA into their English teaching programs and monitor student progress. It is also introducing customized modules for companies to train their staff on industry-specific content. For example, the app has just released the Hotel module in collaboration with FPT Education, to help with training staff at five-star hotels in Da Nang.

“Pronunciation is always the biggest challenge in learning English and a barrier to speaking fluently and confidently, because when you speak English you need to speak clearly to ensure better communication at work and in many circumstances in daily life,” Ms. Vu said. “ELSA helps people solve that challenge in the most effective, personal, and economical way.”

Based on experience

Founded in 2015, the idea for ELSA came from its co-founder’s personal experience in trying to learn English. “When moving to the US for my MBA and Masters in Education at Stanford, my first year was very challenging because of my inability to speak English fluently, even though I was among the top students in English when I studied in Vietnam,” Ms. Vu remembers. “Many times people misunderstood me, and I lost confidence and felt quite embarrassed.” 

She believes that most Vietnamese who have studied abroad had a similar experience in their first year, but there was no good solution to resolve it. She therefore decided to develop ELSA with her co-founder, to provide proprietary speech recognition technology. 

ELSA now has more than 4 million users from 101 countries and territories and has been growing organically in Vietnam, reaching almost 2 million users. The results ELSA has achieved are due to its team focusing on understanding the needs of Vietnamese learners and turning that understanding into product features and content that provide a better learning experience and encourages learners to improve their speaking skills every day.

Ms. Vu recognizes the potential the Vietnamese market holds for ELSA’s development. “There is huge demand for English training in Vietnam for education and for career development, driven by globalization and, especially, by the significant growth in FDI,” she added. “On the cultural side, Vietnamese are lifelong learners who are willing to invest resources into upgrading their English skills. Young Vietnamese are highly educated and tech-savvy, and there is also a major trend towards adopting mobile app learning solutions.”

Many people, however, remain unaware that pronunciation is a core skill, and this represents an obstacle for ELSA. And while people are willing to pay high tuition fees for English classes, when it comes to learning via apps they expect it to be free. “We would have loved to make it free for everyone but then we wouldn’t have the resources to develop a world-class EdTech product to improve people lives,” she explained. “We are making ELSA subscriptions as affordable as possible, equal to just one cup of coffee a month.”

Ms. Vu expects that ELSA’s proprietary speech recognition technology will help 1.5 billion English learners around the world speak English fluently and with confidence in the near future, with Vietnam being a key priority.

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