How AI & speech recognition tech are helping non-native English speakers
Artificial intelligence, NLP framework and speech recognition technology are being used by tech startup ELSA to help language learners improve their spoken English. Manit Parikh, Country Head - India, ELSA Corp, shares that ELSA Speak is used by BPO/KPO, hospitality, aviation, retail, banks, call centres, schools, colleges, vocational training institutions and more, in India and internationally
Can you share with us the vision for starting this company and the key milestones?
ELSA Corp is a San-Francisco based startup founded in 2015 by Vu Van, CEO and a Stanford graduate. Dr Xavier Anguera, a veteran in speech recognition and artificial intelligence is the Co-Founder of the company. It uses proprietary speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence to help language learners improve their English pronunciation. The company’s vision is to enable everyone to speak foreign languages with full confidence, which helps to reach a better life and career opportunities. Vu Van, a Vietnamese studying in the USA, was then inspired to start ELSA when she realised that pronunciation and accent often pose as a hindrance for non-native employees in business. The idea for ELSA was prompted by her experience where she was trying to learn English. For countries in Asia, especially India, the economic importance of English language both for the employee and the business has become significant with globalisation.
ELSA has engineering offices in Lisbon and business offices in Portugal, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. In March 2016, it not only debuted SXSW but also won the SXSWedu launch competition. It went on to win multiple accolades and awards since the launch like “The Best Digital Learning App” by Reimagine Education 2016 and #1 Education App on ProductHunt 2016. It was chosen as App of the Day by Apple in 2019 and 2020, had an honorable mention in the AI and Data category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards and the honor of being the top 100 influencers in the State of EdTech Report by EdTech Digest 2020.
ELSA entered the Indian market in August 2019 and it has completed one year of success with over 800,000 downloads/users. In India, the first milestone was to provide a free subscription to ELSA worth 56 crores to children. Following that, ELSA appointed cricketer Ajinkya Rahane as the Brand Ambassador of ELSA Speak.
Which are your key tech products and solutions for the Indian education sector?
ELSA Corp provides an app, ELSA Speak which is available on Android and iOS stores. The product aims to help learners on individual as well as collective level. The app provides detailed feedback to learners which help them in improving specific parts of their speech.
For universities and schools, ELSA provides the opportunity for students to learn English through phones while also allowing teachers to keep track of students’ progress on individual, class and institute level
For B2B clients specifically, ELSA not only provides a cost effective customised training and development solution for employees but also provides departmental and organisational access to personnel’s learning progress through timely reports. ELSA Speak is used by BPO/KPO, hospitality, aviation, retail, banking, call centres, schools, colleges, vocational training institutions and more in India and internationally.
How are you using artificial intelligence and NLP for ELSA? Please highlight the key tech features.
Vu Van faced a lot of difficulty in the USA as her accent and dialect was not understood by all even though she was skilled in English grammar and vocabulary. She founded ELSA to address this issue which was not only personal to her but a very common problem across the globe. It is an artificial intelligence mobile application that functions as a personal coach focused on pronunciation training and accent reduction using speech recognition. ELSA can identify exact errors at individual sound levels, intonation, rhythm and pitch, and provides instant feedback and recommendations on how to fix those errors. All feedback is fully automated using the proprietary speech recognition technology based on deep-learning algorithms.
ELSA, with its NLP framework, guides users with a 95 percent accuracy without any external assistance. It also has a dictionary to enable proper sentence construction along with picturing elements for more clarity. ELSA is focused on American English as the founder believes it is the most commonly-used business language across the world. At present, the app has around 40 dialects on its platform and ELSA plans to take the number to 100 in the next one year. The refinement of languages progresses and improves, given its AI and NLP background, as it gathers more data.
The app’s proprietary voice recognition and AI is very difficult to replicate and hence, make ELSA unique in terms of training based on voice recognition. Alongside a team of speech recognition scientists and linguistic experts, ELSA (English Language Speech Assistant), the world’s smartest A.I. Assistant for pronunciation training and accent reduction aims to enable the 1.5 billion language learners around the globe to speak foreign languages with full confidence and unlock their opportunities in life.
How is your cutting edge technology helping students from vernacular backgrounds learn English?
ELSA makes use of artificial intelligence and Natural Language Processing to cater to a variety of dialects and accents. In India itself, ELSA offers Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Telugu and Tamil as an option under ‘mother tongue’ to non-native English speakers. NLP acknowledges the influence of the mother tongue on English speaking and customises lesson plans accordingly. It has more than 1600 lessons with multiple modules in each lesson. The app provides instant feedback once you speak and gives detailed analysis. It lists out your strong points and the areas that need to be improved. The app also covers topics from daily life which further helps users in improving their English with the help of context from different situations.
ELSA plans to add more languages in India by December 2020 to cater to a wider user base. It is also bringing in topics such as “cricket” which appeal to a lot of people in the country
Do you foresee ELSA becoming popular in small towns and interiors of India where good English language coaching is not always available?
With the continuous expansion of internet and smartphones across India, People in smaller towns now have access to education opportunities which were previously not available to them. People can improve their spoken English without depending upon trainers or coaching institutes where education not only becomes expensive but also one doesn’t receive the same amount of detailed feedback as given by ELSA. Users can see significant improvement in their English after only three months itself. 27 hours learning with ELSA is equivalent to an English speaking & listening semester at a US college. The improvement brought by an app like ELSA can prove to be a differentiator for people who are looking to improve their employability especially in the service industry. Confidence from proper English speaking leads to people exploring and open to more opportunities and also migrate to bigger cities for work.
What is the advantage for schools, colleges and universities, and other B2B segments?
ELSA, with its AI enabled technology, provides students the opportunity to learn and improve spoken English by providing detailed feedback in real time. This feedback helps students in understanding their mistakes on a granular level and hence improvement happens on the basics. Along with this, educational institutes get a dashboard where they can monitor their students’ progress on individual, class and institute level. The solution is an affordable way for institutes in improving the proficiency of their students, making them career ready and creating a differentiator as compared to other institutes.
ELSA also has solutions focused towards businesses with focus on BPO/KPO, hospitality, aviation, retail, banking, call centres etc. The business receives a dashboard where each employees’ skill level can be tracked. This can be then used in improving the English proficiency levels of the employees which helps in employee motivation and retention. Businesses can also make decisions on project and responsibility allotment based on employees’ performance leading to improved productivity and growth on company level.
Your plans for the future, regarding new technologies and strategic expansion?
ELSA plans to expand in the Indian market with focus on reaching tier-2 and 3 cities also. More languages are being added to cater to linguistically diverse India and hence enabling users to learn spoken English with their vernacular preferences.
The app technology keeps on being improved to cater to different dialects so that the feedback is provided with remarkably high accuracy leading to constant improvement in users’ English proficiency
ELSA is also expanding across different countries in Asia as well as several other markets to fulfil its aim of enabling learners across the globe to improve spoken English and lessening the impact of the existing nativeness in their language
Any other significant factor you want to highlight?
● Comprehensive assessment of all your phonetic challenges, including feedback on individual sounds, rhythm and intonations
● Personalised curriculum that tailors to your specific pronunciation challenges
● Access to 1,600+ English lessons and conversations covering 40+ different topics
● Ability to keep track of your progress and improvement over time
● Dashboards for institutes and businesses to track progress and provide opportunities based on the performance and improvement