When Anada Lakra Y Ilya Usorov First they moved to the United States, they struggled to find their voices. They both knew and understood English, but when it came time to speak, their accent became a hindrance. Usorov, for example, watched as his Russian-born parents struggled to defend themselves, limiting job opportunities. While Lakra, who had just started college at Yale University, was constantly being asked to repeat himself.
“Will I be able to express myself clearly enough? Will they understand me? Will I be so shocking? “Lakra recalls questioning herself.” My accent pronunciation made me feel like I wasn’t really my whole self, and I lost a bit of my personality. “
It is a problem experienced, to varying degrees, by many of the approximately 65 million non-native speakers of English in the United States. Seeing accent as a roadblock in work, trust and relationship building, the duo came together as co-founders to build a solution.
Now, Lakra and Usorov are launching BoldVoice, an accent training app that helps users perfect their English language pronunciation. The New York-based startup, which is currently going through Y Combinator’s 2021 summer batch, raised a pre-seed round of approximately $ 605,000 from the accelerator and XFund.
Hollywood, meet edtech
BoldVoice has a very specific user in mind: non-native English speakers who learned the language on paper but now need help speaking and interacting with people.
The startup uses short-form videos, taught by Hollywood accent trainers who traditionally help actors deliver content. The curriculum is based on three Ps: posture, to help with the physical sensation of using an R in English versus an R in Spanish; phonology, vowels and consonants; and porosity, which is the musicality of an accent. So far, there are two Hollywood accent and dialect trainers on the platform: Ron Carlos Y Eliza Simpson.
“We’re really thinking about this in the same way that an actor will learn an accent for a new role,” where they have to learn very quickly, Lakra said. “We want to bring the same discipline and process to everyone at home, so we have Hollywood accent trainers who are trained speech and dialect trainers,” as well as counselors who have degrees in linguistics.
Beyond its short-form videos, the company plans to integrate artificial intelligence into its product. When a user practices a speech, BoldVoice records the speech sample, feeds it into an algorithm, and over time will be able to recommend exercises more tailored to their weak areas. It currently uses open source software, but is developing its own artificial intelligence algorithm for the future. Real-time feedback would be a feat.
The registration process is pretty straightforward. Users are asked to set goals around accent of confidence, explain English proficiency, and identify native language, as well as the situation in which they want to improve, which can range from the workplace to social settings. Users are also asked to practice pronunciation for 10 minutes a day, with the option to say no.
They are then given a lesson plan, which can only be accessed through a subscription. The company charges $ 10 a month or $ 70 a year, which is meant to be more accessible than private accent coach tutoring, which can go as high as $ 200 an hour. Currently, there is no free experience for BoldVoice beyond a one-week free trial.
After its launch just over a month ago, BoldVoice has attracted 1,000 users, most of whom are from India, China, or are Spanish-speaking. The company is focused on creating “hyper-personalized” content around these top users, and it will have a lot of work to do: 121 languages spoken by over 10,000 people in India, with the Indian constitution officially recognizing 22 languages.
The owl is watching
BoldVoice is looking to delve into the crowded market for language learning startups at a key time for the educational technology subsector. Duolingo language learning unicorn to go public this week, which could shed a golden halo in other consumer education technology companies. The company has already raised its expected price range ahead of its public offering, a confident move. Other companies such as Busuu and Babbel have also advanced in creating spheres of language learning.
But Lakra doesn’t think any existing language learning app has won the accent market yet. He explained that learning a language consists of memorizing vocabulary and grammar, while learning an accent consists of exercising the mouth through exercises with the tongue. The latter, which BoldVoice is focusing on, does not yet appear to be a priority for other companies.
She is not wrong. Duolingo excels at reading and writing, but has yet to share any known efficacy studies on its pronunciation efforts. The company tried to launch a chatbot in its early days to help users practice conversations. However, the much-requested feature failed as 80% of users did not use it, a reaction CEO Luis von Ahn believes underscores how difficult it is to get consumers to practice speaking.
Duolingo is now building investments in a team around speech recognition technology, as well as looking for M&A opportunities. BoldVoice, which similarly uses bite-sized content and stripes, could add your trusted product to Duolingo’s motivational mission.
Beyond the complementary but competitive landscape, the BoldVoice challenge ahead may simply be that it is playing in a sensitive area. Someone’s voice is an integral part of their identity. BoldVoice will need to balance helping people, without erasing what makes them they.
Lakra believes that they can achieve balance. Your perception of the user is constantly evolving.
“Users are already telling us that it would be great to get more advice on how to speak in public or how to intervene in a meeting or how to give courteous feedback,” he said. The requests are about how to use English culturally and linguistically in a professional English-speaking environment, and BoldVoice is working with the coaches to create content beyond pronunciation and cadence, projection, and intonation.
“We definitely want to move on and make this a tool that helps people not only say the word the right way, but feel secure in everything they say.”