Mangling the pronunciation of foreign languages is a longstanding American tradition, but many foreigners aren’t as blithely indifferent about their English-speaking skills. In fact, Alan Schwartz is betting that millions of young professionals abroad are keen to speak English as natively as possible. Enter his year-old Boston-area startup, EnglishCentral, an online language tutorial site that employs proprietary speech recognition technology to grade users on their pronunciation and syntax.
Schwartz says the idea for EnglishCentral came to him in his last role, at the speech recognition software giant Nuance Communications. As its vice president of embedded devices, Schwartz’s group was responsible for getting speech recognition software into cars, mobile devices, and several Sony and Nintendo games. One of those games is the portable Playstation game “Talkman,” which serves as a translator and language tutor, helping users communicate in six foreign languages.
Indeed, in an effort to make learning fun, EnglishCentral employs a growing library of captioned videos, allowing users to choose both a difficulty level with which they are comfortable and content — from sports to dating to politics. “To be motivated, you have to be studying content you love,” Schwartz tells me. “That’s the key” that his 20-person startup is following.
For now, EnglishCentral is marketing its product primarily to Asians who “learn English and study grammar and vocabulary for years in school but who don’t have many opportunities to actually speak it,” says Schwartz. Eventually, it may well be teaching Americans how to speak foreign languages (properly).
Here, you can check out a pretty fascinating demo for the company, which closed on a $3.5 million Series A round from Google Ventures and Atlas Ventures in late December. You can also learn much more about the it in the March issue of Venture Capital Journal.
In the meantime, though it’s but remotely related to this article, check out this Taiwanese news report about the “Tonight Show” debacle. It will have you in tears. (I miss you already, Conan.)