As our increasingly globalized world becomes even smaller, we come into contact with more foreign languages more often. Naturally, the startup world is scrambling to develop tools, services and applications to make it easier for you to learn them.
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The Israeli startup SpeakingPal is carving out a niche to help wannabe English speakers improve their pronunciation on smartphones, tablets and, in the future, smart TVs as well. Perhaps surprisingly, the firm's target audience includes native English speakers who want to (or should) improve their command of their own tongue.
The application, SpeakingPal English Tutor, uses brief lessons in which users practice their English through dialogue with a video character. The dialogues revolve around practical situations such as applying for a passport or asking for directions on the street. After several sentences, users receive an automatic analysis of their pronunciation with emphasis on words that need improvement.
With typical spirit, SpeakingPal recently added another course where a pantomime artist teaches correct pronunciation of various vowels and consonants through entertaining video clips rather than the conventional method of using anatomical diagrams.
The application, available on Android and iPhone, is free but additional premium services cost $5 a month or $20 a year. Since its launch a year ago, it has gained huge market recognition and boasts a million user downloads. The app’s use time is fairly high – more than 21 minutes per visit.
So far, SpeakingPal has won about 10 different awards for educational innovation and technology. Last week, it picked up first place in the higher education category at SXSW LAUNCHedu in Austin, Texas. About two weeks ago, the company participated in Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona, where it exhibited with Qualcomm and Sony, showing how the app could be used across various screens as part of the multi-screen experience. SpeakingPal is a shareholder of the Educational Testing Service – the agency that provides its content to help users study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language
Another partner is SRI International, Stanford University’s research institution, which developed Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant. SpeakingPal also works with another multi-national firm, Lenovo.
“They’re the ones who found us a year ago and asked to work with us,” says Eyal Eshed, SpeakingPal’s CEO. “Today, our software is pre-installed on all of Lenovo’s smart televisions in China.”
SpeakingPal, which was established in 2009, has seven employees. So far, it has raised just over $1 million from angel investors, including Gigi Levy of 888 Holdings and Avner Barel of McCann-Erickson.