The undying challenge of language learners is perfecting accents. Each has its own nuances and problems. None of them, even the simplest, are easy to master. And that’s just for normal languages. We’re not talking extreme cases like the hyper-nasal French or a heavy Eastern European.
Yet, once you pass puberty, it’s a widely known axiom among aspiring polyglots that the accent is a massive chore to master in any new tongue. With English, the emergent lingua franca of the world, getting the accent down is even more important. It’s not enough to be proficient at reading and writing. Verbal communication can mean all the difference for entrepreneurs and others who are pitching their products and projects, seeking investors and making foreign business contacts. That’s where Israeli startup LinguisTech’s product EZSpeak comes in.
“EZspeak uses a voice recognition engine in order to compare pronunciation of the user and its database. According to this comparison, the courses are adapted personally to the users. If I’m not so good at pronouncing, say, [English] th or r, the system will tell me,” describes LinguisTech Founder and CEO Kfir Adam, whose company launched EZSpeak in August.
The product is actually a relaunch from an earlier version. But the old code is a distant memory according to Adam in his comments to Geektime, adding that there is not a single bit of today’s software that resembles the first generation. He explains that this version is cloud-based, unlike the downloadable edition that came out in 2012. This edition, he goes on, also has far more input from voice recognition and linguistics experts at the Technion and Tel Aviv University.
“I’m a serial entrepreneur. It’s my seventh startup. I’ve learned Israeli startups must be based [on] a very strong tech advantage. Speech recognition is challenging and in order to create such a system, you need to employ speech recognition scientists and linguists.”
Breaking down the process of accent acquisition
“The prerequisite requirement is [that] the students will know how to read English, then we teach them speaking skills, giving him the confidence to speak but then correcting pronunciation. The level of English is secondary to our solution and the current product targeting students at the university level. We also have a project now in China with 4th graders where the English is very basic.”
While the long-term duration of each course is not set in stone, so far it has had Chinese students sitting for a half hour a day for three month stretches. That is a small amount of time compared to major language immersion programs which take hours out of students’ daily lives. However, this isn’t a language-learning course. The bulk of students are far past the beginner’s level. The first trials involved 40 students and faculty from Beijing Language and Culture University, who Adam said saw progress after just four weeks. “We measured the pronunciation level to native speakers and they improved relative to their base level by 80%, which is unbelievable. The weakest guy in the class ended the short course with 120% improvement relative to the rest of the class.”
“Unlike most of the existing solutions based on immersion, we listen to the user and divide the signal into the phonemes (units of sound, as in “pho” and “neme”) and then we’re able to assess the quality of each phoneme. I’d say immersion is very good for kids . . . but for second language learners this mechanism isn’t useful at all. They have limited time to allocate for language learning.”
There are some unique but well-known challenges for Asians learning English in that they tend to flatten (as in, make the same) the r and l sounds. But any group of foreign learners will have particular challenges.
“The human being can produce articulation about 50-60 different sounds but each language has only a subset of these sounds,” he reminds Geektime, “for example in Hebrew we don’t have th. Also Americans don’t have the ḥ,” the gutteral k-like sound that is common in languages like Hebrew, Arabic and German.
That led EZSpeak to break up their sound profiles into three categories: sounds most common to all languages, sounds with variations across languages and sounds that are not common to most languages.
The other issue for acquiring a steady (never mind native) accent is that China like most countries around the world dubs a lot of foreign English media like movies instead of adding Mandarin subtitles. “Unlike Israel, you aren’t hearing English on TV or in music and not exposed to movies because the movies are dubbed. They don’t have the mechanism of subtitles like in Israel.”
Chinese demand floods global ESL
So why China? Despite years of British influence, English hasn’t proliferated throughout the country in the way that it has in particular areas like Hong Kong, leaving them with what EF Education First has described as a “Low Proficiency band.” This is a challenge for one of the fastest growing economies that is looking to compete in a mostly English speaking world, but one that the public seems intent on overcoming.
Adam says 20% of the global English as a second language (ESL) market is there. EF’s report indicates that Chinese English-learning is moving online, growing from 67.2 million students studying via the web in 2013 to a projected 120 million by next year.
China may have as many as 300 million English students in the country. may have about 30,000 private ESL companies according to a 2010 report in The Guardian. Back then, the Chinese ESL market was already worth $3.1 billion. China has also raised 20% of the world’s edtech funding in the last two years according to CB Insights, though only 5% of the world’s deals in that time (about two thirds of the money and the deals have been in the US). The most telling benefactor in those trends is Tutor Group, the most well-funded Chinese edtech startup with $315 million raised so far. Its business? English courses.
With many families with near-adult-aged children having had only one child before China repealed the infamous law a couple years ago, how that child does as a student will have major implications on the future of the family. Thus, there is tremendous demand in Chinese markets for that extra boost, especially for kids heading toward the gaokao matriculation exam who want to apply for college. All that means business should keep booming.
“ESL is a crossborder subject which tends to use technology,” Adam tells Geektime, “and in this industry China is leading.”