ELSA Speak helps in English pronunciation

Artificial intelligence (AI) startup ELSA is giving non-native English speakers help with ELSA Speak, an app that teaches how to pronounce English words correctly.

Available for Android and iOS devices, the app is designed to be a personalised coach for practising English. It offers bite-sized lessons intended to improve pronunciation with 10 minutes’ practice a day.

“English pronunciations plague many seeking careers,” said Vu Van, Co-founder and CEO of ELSA, which stands for English Language Speech Assistant.

A Vietnamese immigrant, Van picked up English early and later went to Stanford University to earn an MBA in 2011, but still struggled with certain words, leading her to start ELSA.

She pointed out that the app is focused on pinpointing pronunciation errors. “It’s supposed to help people with accents,” said Van.

She said that having an accent can crush one’s confidence and that working on pronunciation is difficult without the aid of an expensive tutor.

The app uses AI and speech-recognition technology to help people practise English for professional and everyday situations. It counters mispronunciations with helpful tips to get it right.

To train its pronunciation model, the company fed thousands of hours of spoken English into a recurrent neural network. It’s now fine-tuning its algorithm and is constantly training with data from users of its app.

“The more NVIDIA GPUs we have, the more experiments we can run on the model,” she said.

ELSA’s app has been downloaded more than two million times. The service is free for the first week, and then requires a subscription to continue beyond limited access. Subscriptions cost US$3.99 for a month, US$8.99 for three months or US$29.99 for a year.

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