ELSA SPEAK: Revolutionized Education with AI-powered English Learning App

Author: Sabrina Luu

January 11, 2021


The Highlights:

  1. An artificial intelligence (AI)-powered language platform designed to help non-native English learners improve their speech and pronunciation via short, app-based lessons.
  2. ELSA has raised about $12 million in investments and hit around 11 million users worldwide.
  3. User numbers surge “three-to-four times” on a monthly basis, ever since the pandemic

The coronavirus has sparked a revolution in education, pushing schools and institutions online and driving new demand for e-learning apps. One among them is ELSA, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered language platform designed to help non-native English learners improve their speech and pronunciation via short, app-based lessons.

Under the pandemic, ELSA — which uses machine learning to train spoken English specifically — has hit around 11 million users and tapped new markets as international lockdowns have prompted a new need for tech-based learning solutions.

But when Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Van founded the company in 2015, it was out of a whole different necessity.

A billion-person problem

Originally from Vietnam, Van spent several years studying at Stanford University to pursue her MBA and Master’s in Education. Her first year in America was challenging, as she was conscious about her spoken English, even though she was among the top students in her English classes at home.

Her non-native peers shared the same concerns, and they thought this could also be an issue for others as well. "Others" would mean about 1 billion English non-native English speakers worldwide.

Van then dreamt of setting up a tool that could detect users' broken English accurately while providing solutions that are easy-to-follow. She acknowledged that it is hard to learn a perfect American or British accent. "But to speak confidently and fluently so that other people can understand you, that can be fixed," the CEO told CNBC Make It.


The Advent of ELSA Speak

Van recognized this as an opportunity. She and her partner, Xavier Anguera, who has a PhD in speech processing, decided to create a proprietary speech recognition technology in 2015. “We use deep learning and AI to detect people’s pronunciation mistakes with 95%+ accuracy. ELSA listens to the way language learners pronounce words or sentences to pinpoint exact errors and provide real-time, accurate feedback on their mistakes, with specific suggestions on how to move their tongues and their lips in different positions so they can improve those pronunciation errors,” she said.

In other words, ELSA providess AI-powered one-on-one instruction for English-language learners.

ELSA’s framework was trained using voice data of people speaking English with various accents, so it is capable of recognizing the speech patterns of non-native speakers, setting it apart from most other voice recognition technologies, Van said.

The startup is headquartered in San Francisco and has offices in Portugal, India, and Vietnam. So far, it has raised USD 12 million from investors in Silicon Valley and Asia, including Gradient Ventures, which is Google’s AI-focused fund.


Surging under the pandemic

The $12 million from Google's AI Gradient Ventures came just months before the COVID19 pandemic overturned education and supercharged the growth of online tools.

ELSA — which operates a freemium model that gives users full access to over 1,000 courses for around $3-$6 per month, depending on their package — has since seen user numbers surge “three-to-four times” on a monthly basis, according to Van.

That growth is not only from ELSA’s typical users, but also from schools and businesses adapting to new ways of teaching. The company has now partnered with dozens of schools and enterprises across Vietnam and India, as well as Brazil and Ukraine, as it expands into the business-to-business market (B2B).

“Covid really opened up a segment that is new for us,” said Van. “There’s a paradigm shift among parents that there’s a different way of learning. Instead of always having to send their kids to a language learning center or a school, they can rely on technology. We ride on the benefit of that.”

ELSA Cover

Building for the future

As the pandemic rolls on, that demand is likely to continue. “In today’s world, fluent English is considered an asset for greater economic opportunity and we expect to see the continuing growth of edutech — partly accelerated by the pandemic — in Southeast Asia with more entrepreneurs bringing education innovation through technology,” said Ong.

Van said ELSA is exploring more product innovations, such as continuous monitoring, that would allow the app to give feedback reports based on conversations had throughout the day. Such additions, she noted, will need to closely adhere to data privacy rules.

“2020 has been a crazy year, but I think we have done well and we’re excited for what’s in store for 2021,” she said.


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