ELSA boosts your confidence in speaking English

ELSA democratizes an English pronunciation lesson for 1 billion non-native English speakers.

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. 

Building ELSA

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.




Can You Guess the Artist? AI-Generated Music Catering to your Tastes

Student comments on ELSA boosts your confidence in speaking English

  1. Thank you for an interesting blog!
    It was interesting to learn about ELSA’s value creation, capture and monetization strategy. I’m wondering if the ELSA starts issuing language completion certificates which can be accepted widely by universities as an equivalent to IELTS or TOEFL, similar to what Duolingo has done which can be a steady monetization strategy for ELSA and can also contribute in breaking the monopoly of the English proficiency test landscape (as currently there are 2 main players in this space – IELTS & TOEFL). Additionally, I’m curious how is ELSA dealing with churns?

  2. I think this is a phenomenal idea. I think there is a huge market also to be had with second-generation speakers (e.g., someone who’s parents moved from another country). In many cases accents, intonation, and issues such as this pose the largest barrier to entry for someone to learn a language. What a great solution to a broad issue.

  3. A very interesting blog indeed! Very relevant to all non-native speakers and can really appreciate the value creation myself as an international student at such a diverse place as Harvard. Would be interesting to know what the customer economics look like under their freemium model – what’s their monthly subscription cost and the typical time a user takes to flatten the learning curve on the app; therefore what s/he ends up paying vis-a-vis other options. Also, it’s a very interesting product because better the product and quicker the learning process, the faster the end user is likely to drop off from the app leading to revenue loss. So, how do you keep the user engaged post learning curve flattens will be interesting to note. Thanks once again for this great post!

  4. Loved this idea. I wonder if ELSA can also learn on its students as well. Potentially storing “correct” and “incorrect” answers to better design curriculum for students based on their profiles. This obviously lends itself to data security and privacy concerns as very personal recordings could be collected.

  5. Thank you for the post, Lina! When anyone learns a second language, having an app 24/7 listening and checking one’s sentence patterns, topic progression, intonation, word stress, and even word choice during a conversation would be extremely helpful. I wonder UX of the app as most of the language learning features are limited and lack adherence and motivation.

  6. Thank you for the post, Lina. ELSA is in a unique business – the language learning market is oversaturated (Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, flashcard websites, in-person classes, etc.) but there are few good, affordable options. I’ve never used any of these resources, but it seems like they each have a unique position in meeting a category of customer need – for example, ELSA students may be strong in writing and listening, but weaker in speaking.

    The largest language app, DuoLingo, is free but supported with ads; I agree with Anand in that ELSA should experiment with a freemium model. I wonder if there’s an opportunity for ELSA a premium feature, where human tutors sign-in to the app to explain challenging concepts on-demand or help students who are working toward a particular goal (i.e. preparing for an interview in English).

  7. Thank you for this post, Lina. I actually got intrigued by this and installed the app but I have to say that the customer experience is a bit disappointing for me – would love to hear your views on this: inspite of choosing an advance level for English for myself, the exercises I had access to were quite basic (e.g.: pronouncing words like “good morning” and “tupperware”), for words I had issues pronouncing, and I could only do first 2 levels without becoming a paid user. Also, I am not finding Elsa to be offering a very differentiated product compared to duolingo – on the contrary, I think duolingo offers much more flexibility for non-paying users, as well as more variety in terms of languages to be learned and exercises.
    have you been a long term user of ELSA? is the value proposition to customers different, after a longer term use? does it become more customized / customer? how do you see them surviving when facing such a strong and well established competitor as duolingo?

  8. Thank you for the post,
    My partner came with me to HBS without speaking a word of English, she learned through an english institute in Boston, but pronounciation and accent has always been something that makes her feel insecure. We will check this app out.
    Reading the previous comments, I don’t know if I’m worried about monetization, I think willingness to pay for quality english training is extremely high. I do think that marketing is crucial and also creating some sort of measurement of success that could help a user decide if they would rather base their learnings on an app, or pay maybe a bit more and have an online/offline professor teach them.

    We’ll see if my partner is willing to pay for it…

  9. Thank you for this post! This is a brilliant idea and I can see its value to a large section of immigrants or even international students like myself. I wonder whether the core idea can be extended to other countries/languages easily — for example an immigrant in Japan trying to learn Japanese? If so I’m curious if that is a viable expansion strategy for this business?

  10. Thanks for this post Lina! I wish this existed when I was first an international student – i do believe the nuance between knowing English and speaking it in an “acceptable” or “understandable” accent is important to consider. I also wonder about whether “background” listening is something they have considered. I know there are ethical implications but my first thought was my own speaking would be slightly biased to the app (like how I speak in a different accent at HBS vs. with Pakistani friends).

  11. Thank you so much for writing about ELSA, Lina! I’ve never heard of ELSA – I really appreciated learning more about the founder’s personal experience with the problem (pronunciation) and how she used that to create a scalable, affordable solution via AI. I hope ELSA expands beyond English!

Leave a comment