“The ability to practice and repeat over and over again, to listen and train yourself, that’s a really strong side of what this app can do,” explains Vaibhav Anand, India Country Manager, ELSA, why his product is better than YouTube Videos or online tutors are about language learning.
Based in San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, ELSA or English Language Speech Assistant helps non-native English learners improve their language and correct pronunciation through simple, short app-based lessons. “No bias is attributed from the learner’s perspective,” says Anand, adding that the custom AI was built from the ground up with the target audience in mind.
Anand, who has worked with Manipal Education Group and Linkedin in the past, says ELSA works differently than any other English learning app because it’s designed to make it easy for a user to speak the language and to use it regularly to practice. “It [ELSA] recognizes what you are talking about down to the lowest common denominator. Every single sound you articulate in the app is recorded, analyzed and then you get precise feedback on which areas you are strong in and where you need to improve,” he says.
In 2015, Google-backed ELSA was founded by Vu Van, a Vietnamese who struggled to become fluent in English. It was very important to her at Stanford University and later in her work as a management consultant. Van realized that she was not alone with the problem and many non-native speakers, despite the technical know-how, lack the confidence to speak English.
ELSA was formed because Vu saw an opportunity to address the common problem shared by millions of people through a technology-enabled solution that was introduced after Vu met Xavier Anguera, a renowned linguist who is now the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of ELSA.
ELSA has over 25 million users around the world, 3 million of them in India, and that’s what Anand and his team want to focus and grow on. English remains the language of choice in India as it opens up economic opportunities for millions of people who are either planning to study abroad or seeking jobs where English skills are vital. Anand claims the company has the largest pool of non-English language samples from users in the world.
The app, available on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, gives you instant feedback based on your recordings, including error feedback and suggestions for improvement. It offers four lesson types – listening, syllable stress, word pronunciation and dialogue – and covers 40 topics and 1600 lessons. Once you download the app, you have to take a 5-minute placement test that assesses the user’s pronunciation ability and verifies the level. This can then be used to create a personalized curriculum tailored to the user’s current skills.
On average, users spend almost 14 to 15 minutes on ELSA, making it one of the top 10 apps in terms of engagement in the ed tech space. For Anand, it’s a more streamlined approach to learning that drives users to use the ELSA app to learn English and improve their pronunciation, rather than attending face-to-face classes. “Speaking is a skill that you have to constantly practice and it’s important to get feedback and the ELSA app is perfect for that,” he says, comparing it to learning in the classroom, where the group size is large and it’s difficult is to achieve individual participation.
“Compared to a 40-hour intervention in a face-to-face program, ELSA is actually half the time you spend about 15-18 hours in the high school because it is dedicated to you and focuses solely on the areas that affect you to improve need,” says Anand, explaining the adaptive nature of the app, which curates content based on the progress you’ve made.
The ELSA app has two aspects – speech recognition and curriculum design. For speech recognition, which is done in-house and led by Anguera, the team is working to train the AI to understand the accents and dialect. The other team consists of curriculum and content experts. According to Anand, the content is designed to adhere to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), an international standard for describing language skills.
ELSA generates money through subscriptions. The AI-powered English pronunciation app has a free version and a paid version, the latter costs Rs 3,599 for a year or Rs 1,999 per quarter. Although ELSA may seem like a B2C app, the long-term goal is to focus on attracting B2B customers. Anand wants to tap into universities and colleges and bring enterprise customers to grow the app’s user base in India. In fact, ELSA already has over 10 corporate clients in the country, although Anand refused to name them.
For enterprise customers, Anand said they are speaking to several customers to understand how to customize the app and tailor it for a specific use case. The company is already working with a major airline in Southeast Asia, for which it has developed a module, mainly for cabin crew. A similar connection is planned with an airline in India, although details have been kept under wraps for the time being.
ELSA is backed by Google’s AI-focused fund Gradient Ventures, SOSV, Monk’s Hill Ventures, along with U2’s Endeavor Catalyst, Globant Ventures and The Edge (David Evans). Last year it raised a $15 million Series B led by VI (Vietnam Investments) Group and SIG. To date, ELSA has raised over $28 million. The company plans to raise additional funds in the future as it sees growth opportunities in international markets and wants to scale the product aimed at B2B customers.