ELSA, an app whose name expressed support for “English Language Speech Assistant”( and not the popular Disney character !), has raised $3.2 million for its A.I.-assisted language learning platform that teaches people how to speak English. Unlike other courses that focus primarily on teaching grammar and vocabulary, ELSA uses artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology to assist language learners with their pronunciation.

The $3.2 million pre-A round of funding was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, a firm that invests in post-seed stage startups in Southeast Asia. Monk’s Hill founder and collaborator, Peng T. Ong, is joining ELSA’s board.

The San Francisco-based startup was originally founded in 2015 by Stanford grad Vu Van, ELSA CEO, and Dr. Xavier Anguera, whose background is in speech recognition and A.I. technologies. It debuted at SXSW in March 2016, where it subsequently won the SXSWedu launch competition.

According to Van, who was born and raised in Vietnam, the relevant recommendations for ELSA was prompted by her personal experience in trying to learn English.

“I moved to the States for my MBA and Master’s in Education at Stanford, ” she says. “My first year at Stanford was very challenging because of my ability to speak English. A lot of the time, people misunderstood me, ” Van continues.

Although ELSA’s founder was able to write and read English fairly well, she wanted to find a good solution for improving her accent- and she came up short.

“I realised that people didn’t truly have a lot of solutions…when it comes to speaking, they could either go to a speech therapist that costs them $150 an hour, who could listen to them and set their accent, or they could go to YouTube or watch Netflix, which is a one-way learning answer, ” Van says.

She decided to develop ELSA as a result of her own struggles, bringing in co-founder Dr. Anguera to help create ELSA’s proprietary speech acknowledgment technology.

To use ELSA, language learners download the app for iOS or Android, then take ELSA’s five-minute assessment test which recognizes the user’s diction proficiency and identifies where they still have challenges. This information is then used to build out a personalized curriculum, tailored to the user’s current abilities.

In ELSA, there are around 600 lessons and 3,000+ words across a variety of topics, like introductions, talking about family or relationships, jobs and employ, traveling, and more. The app is also updated regularly with seasonal and timely topics, like lessons featuring the holidays, or even the new “Star Wars” movie, so learners can better participate in everyday communication.

The lessons themselves are bite-sized, at 2 minutes long. They have five exercises that get progressively harder, including dictions of words, phrases and sentences.

ELSA runs by listening to learners’ voices, then matching up what they said with the remedy American English pronunciation. The words on the screen are highlighted in cherry-red, yellow and green to show how well each the student did. The app will likewise help by making propositions as to how the speaker can improve on a dedicated sound- for example, by telling them how to shape their mouth or move their tongue.

Behind the scenes, ELSA is powered by A.I. technology, that listens to users’ speech- something the team constructed from scratch.

“The speech recognition technology out there is slightly different[ from ELSA ]. They try to guess what you’re saying, whether you’re saying it right or wrong. It’s plainly very forgiving to mistakes. What we want to do is the exact opposite, ” says Van.

Since its launch two years ago, ELSA has been adopted by a few million consumers in over 100 countries, with about one half its user base in Southeast Asia, and the rest spread out anywhere else in the world, including in The countries of latin america and Eastern Europe. Customers are today practising a few million exerts per week.



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