Do you like learning a foreign language? What makes learning a foreign language challenging for you? Is it to learn grammar? Or to increase your vocabulary? Or maybe it’s pronunciation.
English, the most widely spoken language in the world with 378 million native speakers and 743 million non-native speakers, can be notoriously challenging when it comes to its pronunciation for many non-native speakers, hereby English learners. ELSA is here to democratize the experience of learning English pronunciation.
The Story behind ELSA
ELSA, “English Learning Speech Assistant ” was founded by Vu Van, a Vietnamese entrepreneur, in 2015. The firm’s foundation story is based on her long and challenging English learning experience. Having studied English for 20-plus years, Vu Van tried millions of ways to master her English skills, ranging from diligently attending classes in Vietnam, spending her spare time watching TV shows in English, to living in Denmark before moving to the USA. In California, she earned an MBA and a Master’s in Education from Stanford. Continuing her path in consulting in the USA, she often felt dismissed both in the classes and the workplace. Despite being confident in her English vocabulary, she also acknowledged that her Vietnamese accent was strong. The professors, classmates, and colleagues had difficulty understanding her even though she had brilliant ideas. Vu recalled this experience, “Every time I spoke, people would ask me to repeat myself, and they’d just keep asking over and over. You start feeling embarrassed and withdrawing into yourself because you’ve lost your confidence”. She went on taking a lesson from a speech therapist and it enormously helped her improve her pronunciation skills. But it was not affordable – on average charging $150 per hour. She, then, had a realization that she should not be the only one feeling the same. However, she could not find many solutions that tackle this problem in a more accessible way, which led her to build ELSA in 2015.
What does ELSA do?
ELSA uses artificial intelligence and voice recognition to improve English learners’ fluency. Just imagine having your personal pronunciation coach in your phone. That’s it. You just need to talk to the app and it can recognize a variety of English accents and identifies your pronunciation mistakes in real-time with 95% accuracy. It then provides instructions and personalized and gamified lessons on how you can fix these mistakes or improve.
It offers a freemium pricing model available on both iOS and Android, so users can enjoy functions such as a free pronunciation test and a limited number of lessons. By upgrading it to the ELSA PRO, users will have access to functions like unlimited access to the lessons, detailed analysis of their speaking score, tracking tool, dictionary, etc. The topics on ELSA focus on real-life experiences so ELSA hopes to remove users’ daily fear of speaking English. And in 2022, ELSA has provided more than 1.5 exercises, and acquired 14 million downloads globally in 100-plus countries with large concentrations in Asia, including Vietnam, Japan, India, and Indonesia, and Latin America, such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. According to ELSA’s internal data, 90 percent of its users recognized the fast progress in the first three months of experience using ELSA and 95 percent feels more confident in speaking English.
After finding her co-founder, Xavier from Portugal, a leading expert in voice recognition, the team started to build a prototype. They input data from non-native English speakers and benchmarked against American English, which the team was able to collect the most data. The early target was her home-country Vietnam. They paid people to speak English to the prototype in multiple environments to test various acoustic situations. The first ASR “Automatic Speech Recognizer” was born in this way and started to further develop by training its algorithm.
For feedback to users, the company closely works with linguists and experts in language to create the best feedback, and its algorithm continues to iterate based on users’ improvements.
What’s next for ELSA?
Being driven by its mission, “to enable people around the world to speak English with confidence”, ELSA launched “Speech Analyzer” in 2022. It is an AI-powered conversational English fluency coach that listens to users’ speech and provides real-time feedback. Imagine a Grammarly but speech-based solution.
Challenges & Opportunities ahead
Despite claiming 14 million downloads, there’s a question remaining regarding the number of paid users as well as monthly active users. The biggest language app, Duolingo, is well-known for having users obsessed with keeping daily track of its learning practices (with 37 million monthly active users as of 2022). As being private, ELSA does not publicize the number of active users, but it seems to focus on user acquisition at this point. For example, their community feature is limited compared to Duolingo, so it seems weaker when it comes to a so-called network-effect creation. However, they still have room to grow both in acquisition and retention by focusing on B2B. By integrating ELSA into the curriculum of schools or company training, ELSA has a huge potential to acquire more users and higher retention. It seems that they have embarked on B2B strategy, by providing solutions for airlines, hospitality, consulting, and call centers, and this might be a key to its more promised success in future endeavors.