Blue Canoe takes on language studying with a concentrate on pronunciation

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If you wish to choose up a brand new language, there’s no scarcity of choices, and free ones, at that. However one side of the method that has been uncared for is pronunciation, which is an particularly necessary a part of it for professionals. On-line, studying pronunciation is mostly “hear a recording, then repeat it (to an empty room).” A brand new platform, Blue Canoe Studying, makes use of a longtime curriculum and machine studying to make issues simpler and simpler. It’s the primary firm to affix AI2’s new incubator in Seattle, and has raised a $1.four million spherical to broaden its operations.

There are thousands and thousands of English learners on the market, a lot of whom converse it as their first language, however nonetheless discover themselves unable to make themselves understood particularly to People, who’re significantly underexposed to sure accents.

The truth is that American English is the worldwide language of many industries, and anybody in one in all them, whether or not they’re name heart workers, software program engineers or executives, can profit from with the ability to undertake an American-like accent. Their employers know that too, so Blue Canoe goes straight to them as a substitute of adopting a direct-to-consumer strategy.

I say potato…

The difficulty with educating pronunciation is that it’s not nearly telling folks say one thing accurately, however listening to how they say it and offering corrective steering. That sort of private suggestions is tough to scale.

It’s particularly troublesome when you think about the neurological limitations of grownup language learners. Except you be taught sure sounds at a younger age, your mind ultimately discards the mechanism for listening to them, making it troublesome for some audio system to even perceive that they’re announcing one thing incorrectly. (I had this expertise in China just lately once I tried to get instructions to Futian; I received it proper on the eighth or ninth attempt.)

Add to this that in American English, you will have 5 vowels however 14 vowel sounds, and it’s a recipe for confusion.

“Individuals haven’t targeted on the final mile,” Blue Canoe founder Sarah Daniels informed me. “They are saying they do spoken studying, but it surely’s glorified hear and repeat.”

One try to handle this, offline anyway, has been the Shade Vowel System, which depends on mnemonics and rhythm to assist unlock sounds in your mind that you could be not even know are there. Every vowel sound is related to a coloration and alliterative phrase: inexperienced tea or brown cow, for example. So to be taught to say “pace,” learners could be instructed to say “inexperienced tea pace.” The repetition and coloration affiliation, theoretically, assist with retention and support in producing the vowel sounds in query.

I say theoretically not as a result of I personally doubt it, however as a result of there isn’t lots of literature on this; pronunciation is a difficult factor to measure in contrast with vocabulary or written proficiency — very subjective. However the Peace Corps, State Division and several other main universities have adopted the system, so till the research come out I’m okay with trusting their judgment.

Scaling the system

Blue Canoe (itself a mnemonic phrase) has labored to digitize the Shade Vowel System and bundle it as an app. It’s nonetheless at a really early stage, with extra content material deliberate as the corporate learns from its pilot packages.

Customers play a card sport (the primary of a number of video games and actions to be included) that requires them to say the vocabulary phrase on the cardboard they play; a machine studying system listens and identifies whether or not they have pronounced it accurately, and if not, provides related suggestions.

At first I assumed the system would have been skilled on reams of American English speaker knowledge, and analyze the delta between the waveforms, but it surely’s smarter than that. As a substitute, Blue Canoe had folks with numerous accents talking, and their pronunciation was annotated phrase by phrase by professionals. So an “r” pronounced with a roll (by, for instance, a French speaker) could be handled otherwise than an “r” pronounced nearer to “l” (by a Japanese speaker). Stressing a unique syllable from People (the commonest distinction) will even be detected.

The quantity and sort of errors additionally lets the app create an general ranking, and spotlight phrases or sounds the speaker is bettering on, wants assist with and so forth. A part of the plan is to trace these rankings and examine them to skilled, in-person rankings as a way to validate them as an automatic, goal rating of a consumer’s pronunciation progress. That alone could be a great tool for firms, however the means to enhance that rating, in fact, is likewise enticing.

Blue Canoe is already working with a number of firms to create particular curricula with vocabulary and targets (and maybe actions) tailor-made to their wants — technical phrases, apply phrases, and many others. This pilot program ought to final the following few months, after which second quarter subsequent yr ought to see a extra public rollout, maybe alongside documentation of the analysis course of and effectiveness of the app.

Kernel Labs led the $1.four million spherical, however Blue Canoe might be getting its subsequent few months of steering and nurturing from the Allen Institute for AI, which earlier this yr established a brand new, low-profile incubator program. That is their first choice for a corporation to undertake and spend money on, although not essentially consultant of the sort they’re going for: I had envisioned, once I talked with AI2 earlier, some sort of wild-haired geniuses who wanted reining in by established AI brains. However this works too.

Featured Picture: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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