SEPTEMBER 15, 2015

New Technology Helps ELP Students Ace Pronunciation

New Technology Helps ELP Students Ace Pronunciation

By Rachel Peterson, WAL Faculty

Rachel PetersonMastering pronunciation can pose a tremendous challenge for any foreign language learner.  Language teachers can teach pronunciation effectively when all the students in the class are facing the same pronunciation challenges. But what can teachers do when each student in their class speaks a different native tongue, therefore facing unique pronunciation challenges?  This issue can be a source of frustration and dismay in international English classrooms, where an instructor may be teaching English pronunciation to students from ten different countries and languages. Standard pronunciation lessons are, unfortunately, often hit and miss in this type of learning environment.  But recently, English instructors at the Washington Academy of Languages have found a solution to the problem with the use of SpeechAce, a program that measures how students’ pronunciation compares to native speakers, and then guides them through improving challenging sounds individually.

SpeechAce was founded in Seattle by Abhishek Gupta and Ian Cheung.  Ian, who is from Hong Kong and needed fluency for business, found that once outside the English classroom, existing pronunciation tools available for continued practice, such as Rosetta Stone, were too simplistic.  The user’s pronunciation can be only correct or incorrect. Such tools are limiting to the user; they do not explain why the pronunciation of a word was wrong, or assist in improvement of tone, emphasis, syllable, phoneme, etc. To remedy this, Ian began to write an iPhone app. Using speech recognition technology to pinpoint his English pronunciation mistakes in very specific detail, the app was able to provide useful feedback about which areas of his pronunciation needed improvement.  Realizing the value of his new product, Ian worked together with fellow innovator Abhishek Gupta, and SpeechAce was designed and developed for release to the consumer market.

A few months after the release of the iPhone app, Ian and Abhishek realized that ESL schools could benefit greatly from offering this technology to teachers in their classrooms.  So Ian and Abhishek reframed their pronunciation improvement technology into a web-based, learning management system that allows teachers to tailor and upload class-based content onto the website.  Besides customizing the program according to class level and utilizing the vocabulary of the textbook lessons, teachers can also use the system to monitor the progress of each student.  Abhishek approached Christine Knorr, Academic Director at Washington Academy of Languages, to pilot SpeechAce in the ELP 51 and ELP 61 English Listening and Speaking classes.  Students and teachers both overwhelmingly embraced the learning platform, and after only two quarters, City University of Seattle has now made SpeechAce an official part of their English Language curriculum.

So how exactly is SpeechAce used at City University?  Instructors can incorporate it into a group activity, where entire classes log onto the platform in the computer labs.  Instructors can assign the unit’s vocabulary for practice during a listening/speaking class.  Each student will log in and put on headphones. Then SpeechAce will allow a student to hear a native speaker pronounce the word.  A student will record his or her attempt at the same word, phonetic sound, sentence or paragraph into their headphone microphone, and SpeechAce calculates by percentage how close the student’s pronunciation is to that of the native speaker.  SpeechAce then displays a comparative breakdown of the student’s pronunciation, syllable by syllable and sound by sound.  The student can attempt their word, phonetic sound, sentence or paragraph an unlimited number of times, and each time the program will help the student to master more fluent pronunciation.  The teacher can follow the student’s progress, see the score breakdowns for each student and even listen to the student’s recordings.  If a specific sound or word presents difficulty, the instructor can offer practical advice to the student such as opening their teeth a little wider or feeling for the sound in a certain part of their throat.  This creates a positive environment for instructors to focus on a student’s individual needs and provide immediate, constructive feedback, whether that feedback is through the platform itself as a written comment or during the lesson, face-to-face.  The SpeechAce website is user-friendly, easy to navigate and convenient.  Students can follow up classroom lessons by logging in at home from their personal computers as well. This easy-access enables them to practice, take quizzes or complete assignments throughout the quarter through SpeechAce’s website.

SpeechAce is now spreading quickly from Seattle to Vietnam, Australia and Japan. Ian and Abhishek are busy developing content for customers who want targeted improvement in English pronunciation for employees and students in hospitality, aviation, nursing and other industries.  City University is also planning to integrate SpeechAce technology into the Assisted MBA Program, where business students hope to sharpen their speaking and presentation skills in English.


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