‘SpeakingPal English Tutor’ is a mobile app that lets users interact with a virtual video tutor using short dialogues and get instant pronunciation feedback on words and sentences spoken. It aims to provide a natural speaking experience powered by Speech Recognition technology and use of scoring logic that lets users learn naturally, similar to interacting with a person and not just with content.
The learner can compare his/her speech with that of model native speakers, and retry to get a higher feedback score as often as desired. The newest version has added gamification, translations, vocabulary aid and quizzes. The content used has been approved by ETS, the creator of TOEIC and TOEFL. ETS is a part stakeholder in SpeakingPal. SpeakingPal is a private company with angel and institutional funding.
SpeakingPal claims to have close to 2 million users worldwide with USA, China and India having the biggest user base. “There are more than a few hundreds of thousands of users from China. It is worth noting that SpeakingPal has acquired all of these users without any marketing – all of them are organic”, shares Dr. Shaunie Shammass, VP, Linguistic Innovation at SpeakingPal.
Plans for China: “Seeking a strong partner”
“SpeakingPal considers Asia as the strongest region for growth, and we have experienced the highest demand from this region. We have customers and business relations in China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand, with a new growing demand from India”, she adds.
Shaunie also adds that SpeakingPal is seeking a strong partner in China with a large distribution and market reach, like a local mobile operator, local education giant etc.
Motivation behind the startup and The Team
The motivation for SpeakingPal came from the feedback of English students and teachers who were using existing PC based e-Learning English Language Learning solutions – and all of these solutions lacked the ability to improve the speaking skills. There was also a growing demand for learning solutions on mobile phones. “We combined these two strong demands from the global market into a single mobile learning platform with the vision of making it available globally at a low and competitive price so that it could be attainable and affordable for all”, says Dr. Shammass.
The team was formed when the two founders, serial entrepreneur Eyal Eshed, and mobile enthusiast Ariel Velikovsky met while studying at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. The team was rounded off by high-tech linguist Dr. Shaunie Shammass, who came to SpeakingPal from the e-learning world, but also had an extensive background in building linguistic resources for automatic speech recognition.
The team launched the first version of “SpeakingPal English Tutor” globally in the latter part of 2011. In November 2013, they launched a full version with advanced features, including gamification, content packaging based on specific interest (business, travel, etc.), and full translation of the learning content, vocabulary aid, quizzes etc.
The version has been available in China since its first launch. The beta version was shown in GMIC 2011, in Beijing, where the startup was placed as a finalist.
It is being pre-installed on Lenovo Android Smart TVs in China (only) since early 2013. A full content translation to Chinese is currently being added, to be released in January 2014.
The user talks in English with a video character and the automatic speech recognition provides instant feedback on each word and sentence. In the new version, the user goes from one level to another, progressing like in a game. There are more than 100 levels, 1000 different dialogs, 1800 sentences, 1300 vocabulary cards and hundreds of quiz questions, shares the startup. For each sentence, users can compare their recorded speech with a video of a native English speaker. All lessons are topic based, now packaged into specific interests (business, travel, etc).
“Each dialog is short, humorous and fun and the practice can take as little as a few minutes or be extended to unlimited practice opportunity. There is an innovative section called ‘Sounds’, where a pantomime artist shows how to make all of the English sounds. The new version includes a glossary, with vocabulary definitions and pictures where appropriate, along with game-like quizzes”, adds Dr. Shammass.
Users can access a free download which gives access to around 20% of the content (which translates into hours of free practice with automatic speech recognition feedback provided). If users would like to use more content – they can buy more from the app with an in-app-purchase. Schools, corporate & education companies purchase annual bulk licenses from SpeakingPal.