ELSA, an app whose name stands for “English Language Speech Assistant”( and not the popular Disney character !), has raised $3.2 million for its A.I.-assisted language learning platform that teaches people how to speak English. Unlike other courses that focus mainly on teaching grammar and vocabulary, ELSA utilizes artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology to assistance language learners with their pronunciation.
The $3.2 million pre-A round of funding was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, a firm that invests in post-seed stage startups in Southeast Asia. Monk’s Hill founder and partner, Peng T. Ong, is joining ELSA’s board.
The San Francisco-based startup was originally founded in 2015 by Stanford grad Vu Van, ELSA CEO, and Dr. Xavier Anguera, whose background is in speech recognition and A.I. technologies. It debuted at SXSW in March 2016, where it afterward won the SXSWedu launch competition.
According to Van, who was born and raised in Vietnam, the idea for ELSA was prompted by her personal experience in trying to learn English.
“I moved to the Country for my MBA and Master’s in Education at Stanford, ” she says. “My first year at Stanford was very challenging because of my ability to speak English. A plenty of the time, people misunderstood me, ” Van continues.
Although ELSA’s founder was able to write and read English fairly well, she wanted to find a good solution for improving her accent- and she came up short.
“I realized that people didn’t actually have a lot of solutions…when it comes to speaking, they could either go to a speech therapist that costs them $150 an hour, who could listen to them and fix their accent, or they could go to YouTube or watch Netflix, which is a one-way learning answer, ” Van says.
She decided to develop ELSA as an expression of the results of her own fights, bringing in co-founder Dr. Anguera to help create ELSA’s proprietary speech recognition technology.
To use ELSA, language learners download the app for iOS or Android, then take ELSA’s five-minute appraisal exam which identifies the user’s accent proficiency and identifies where they still have challenges. This information is then used to build out a personalized curriculum, tailored to the user’s current abilities.
In ELSA, there are around 600 lessons and 3,000+ words across a variety of topics, like introductions, talking about family or relationships, employment creation and hiring, traveling, and more. The app is also updated regularly with seasonal and timely topics, like lessons featuring the holidays, or even the new “Star Wars” movie, so learners can better participate in everyday communication.