Learning a second language as an adult is difficult. For one thing, there’s often no teacher to assign homework or enforce practice. And if there is, the classroom time can get in the way of work.
According to English pronunciation training company Blue Canoe Learning, the adult brain actually prevents us from hearing the sounds that new languages make. That’s why trying to learn a second language by listening to someone else speak it typically doesn’t work. It’s commonly believed that adult brains are less flexible and quick to pick up new languages than children’s brains, but recent research found that “language learning is really for everyone at all stages of life.”
In an increasingly global society, being able to communicate in a common language is increasingly important. English is still often the default language used in business settings, and as of 2016, more than half of the content online was in English (although that percentage may decrease in the future).
Sarah Daniels, CEO and co-founder of Blue Canoe Learning, calls pronunciation the “last mile” of learning English. Because of the difficulty of mastering pronunciation when learning a second language, Blue Canoe offers an app to help learners practice. Blue Canoe just announced an initial $1.4 million investment and was accepted into the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s new incubator program. Its app uses machine learning-powered speech recognition to provide personalized feedback to learners on their pronunciation. The app also identifies which sounds and words users are having difficulty with and provides a score to employers so that they can track employees’ learning.
Blue Canoe uses a methodology called the Color Vowel System®, which uses colors and rhymes to support pronunciation and retention. The method has been used by Harvard, Yale and the U.S. State Department. The company recently launched pilot programs with its first business customers, who will be able to focus on custom vocabulary for their particular industry, organization and employees.
Blue Canoe isn’t the only company providing English language training on an app. GlobalEnglish, a 20-year old company that underwent a management buyout from Pearson last year, recently announced its mobile app, GlobalEnglish Reach.
Until now, GlobalEnglish has relied on its online platform to provide e-learning, virtual classrooms and online coaching. However, according to CEO Karine Allouche Salnon, more and more of its customers’ employees were using mobile devices to access their online content. GlobalEnglish wanted to provide a unique mobile-first experience that mirrored how users access other content on their phones. They decided a microlearning app was the solution.
Users select three skills they want to work on over three months, and the app uses machine learning to recommend three- to ten-minute activities based on their performance as they progress. If a learner has completed multiple activities and is still struggling with a skill, he or she then has access to a coach.
Salnon says GlobalEnglish’s program has seen a great deal of success with its customers, and she believes the app will make the experience even better. Customers have, for example, seen a correlation between higher customer service ratings and their online English training “because of the quality of the calls and the communication they could have with those customers.” GlobalEnglish plans to apply components of the mobile learning experience to its web platform, including the content recommendation engine, in 2018.
Tsedal Neeley, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in 2012, “English is now the global language of business. More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language … in an attempt to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors.” Globalization necessitates cross-cultural communication. Whether or not English will always be the de-facto official language of business, it is for now. Making sure employees are proficient may be essential to maintain competitiveness in a shrinking world.