The US/Vietnam startup has already picked up 50,000 downloads and took home the SXSWEdu 2016 Launch award
“People who speak English with an accent are perceived to be 30 per cent less trustworthy and people who speak English less confidently will earn 40% less income than those who do,” said Vu Van, CEO of ELSA, matter-of-factly during our meetup in San Diego.
ELSA (English Learning Speech Assistant), which was co-founded with serial entrepreneur Tu Ngo, is a virtual coach that can be easily understood as ‘Siri who teaches English pronunciation.”
The mobile app (available in iOS and Android), which stands for English Learning Speech Assistant, already has been downloaded 50,000 times within a month of its launch. An additional claim to fame for the young startup, getting to take home the SXSWEdu 2016 Launch award.
Built out in San Francisco, ELSA’s first test market was actually in Van’s home country Vietnam — where her passion for education and ongoing quest for equal access has been playing out. Her non-profit VietSeeds Foundation offers scholarships and coaching for kids from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds so they can go to college and eventually land top jobs.
“Last year, 10 out of 10 students from our first batch graduated college and they got good jobs at PwC, FPT, Deloitte — these are the top companies in Vietnam and these are jobs that these kids have never even dreamed of,” she said. Besides helping kids from rural Vietnam gain equal footing with children of middle-class families in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, it was Van’s own migration story that catalysed the idea for ELSA.
Van is a bit of a global citizen. Having grown up in Vietnam and calling Denmark home for three years, she then headed further west to California to do her MBA and Masters in Education at Stanford University. She’s now made a home for herself in San Francisco. Despite years in Europe and the US, Van remembers working tirelessly to improve her English which over time — did wonders for her confidence.
“I worked very hard at keeping my accent because I knew it would give me an edge as an immigrant, but at least people won’t have trouble understanding me anymore,” she said. “If I can speak confidently, even with an accent, people won’t judge my credibility. So that’s what we want to do, to build that credibility — if you can speak to a machine and it understands you, chances are a human can also understand you.”
While the app’s current curriculum is one-size fits all, Van said that ELSA will soon include an assessment test to determine the learner’s English level and pronunciation.
“By doing the assessment, we’ll know the challenges that impact your speech fluency and we’ll be able to give you a set of curriculum that follows your assessment test results. How it works is you speak to the app and you’ll be able to get feedback instantly — such as how to move your lips or tongue differently or whether you have the wrong intonation or stress,” said Van.
Using machine learning, ELSA will glean data from its users and be able to provide curricula for varying levels of English learners. While the app can only groom learners to speak like Americans from the Midwest at the moment, Van said that the product will eventually be capable in teaching English with a British accent.
Of course, learning fancy new accents isn’t the focus of the product but Van isn’t ruling out those possibilities. After all, she pointed out as we wrapped up our interview, ELSA is a machine and you can program it to teach you anything you like — whether it’s Spanish or Singlish.
“The author is a freelance tech journalist and also a director with Topica Edtech Group (http://topica.asia), Southeast Asia’s largest online education provider. In the past, she was the deputy editor at e27 in Singapore and also an editor with StartupsHK in Hong Kong.”
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