SpeakingPal, a small Israeli startup, is garnering international attention for its interactive, phone-based approach to teaching spoken English.
When you want to learn a new skill, you go to the experts. For folks from around the world who want to learn English, one of those experts is New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers 50 million exams a year, including the pre-college SAT, in more than 180 countries.
But where do the experts go to get content for their educational programs? One of the prime sources ETS relies on for mobile teaching materials is Israel’s SpeakingPal.
“They had been looking to move into Internet and mobile services for awhile, so the partnership is a good deal for both of us,” says CEO Eyal Eshed. “I didn’t realize this, but Israel is a world leader in ESL (English as a Second Language) education, producing curricula, products and technology to help people learn English.”
The best way to learn a language is to speak it, preferably with someone who speaks that language well, and that’s the philosophy behind SpeakingPal. It’s a mobile video app, designed to be used on phones with video displays. The app provides a series of short dialogue scenarios – doing business at the bank, for example, or trying to check in for a flight. The user is asked questions such as, “Do you want to change your reservation?” or “Do you want to change money?” — the kinds of situations travelers typically encounter, Eshed tells ISRAEL21c.
The dialogues can branch off into different directions because the automated SpeakingPal system adapts to the user’s response. After each session, SpeakingPal analyzes performance, rating it by color – green for “good,” red for “needs improvement,” — and offers advice on how to improve. “The user can even request performance ratings for the entire dialogue or just for individual sentences or words.
The dialogues are short – most of them around five or 10 minutes – by design, says Eshed. “The idea is to pick up the phone when you have a few minutes and get some English practice in. The phone is the way most people communicate, and with the proliferation of smart phones, more people are using them to interact with the web and do almost anything else they used to do at their desktop computers. The phone is always with them, and they can easily take a break from whatever they’re involved in and practice their English, getting proper feedback from an expert, just like working with a real tutor, who gives you feedback and corrects you on the spot.”
SpeakingPal does business with some of the global giants of ESL education – from ETS to programs popular in Japan and other Asian countries. The company has won numerous awards for its technology and product, and most recently was nominated as a finalist for the Red Herring Top 100 Europe award.
According to Alex Vieux, publisher and CEO of Red Herring, “The global economic situation has abated and there are many great companies producing really innovative and amazing products. SpeakingPal shows great promise.”
Most of SpeakingPal’s distribution is done in coordination with its partners, and the company also has an app that can be directly downloaded from the iPhone. “We have a successful model for an app because we are offering not just a one-time download, but an ongoing service, which customers pay for on an ongoing subscription basis,” says Eshed.
Established in 2009 and funded by a group of private investors, the company has just 10 full-time employees, and competes in the same market against such notables as Nuance and Sensory. Its product, along with contenders offered by those companies, was nominated for this year’s Mobility Awards, which honor the best and finest mobile and wireless products and services in the industry.
“That nomination was very exciting for a small startup company such as ours,” said Eshed. “There are millions of people the world over who have a burning need to improve their English-speaking skills, which we believe will be serviced by SpeakingPal’s learning solution.”