The lack of proficiency in spoken English often is a hurdle to better prospects. Given this scenario, the need for effective language teachers is on the rise – both virtual and physical. English Dost is an award-winning mobile app that helps people from smaller towns and cities to learn to speak English fluently.
The training app is in the form of a speaking game (in English, of course) where the user plays the role of a person starting a new job. The app takes the user through a story where he/she participates in simulated conversations with colleagues, friends, and family. At every stage when the user speaks,the app uses speech recognition patterns to identify the player’s mistakes and then provides targeted feedback.
The app is designed to train the auditory centres of the brain as well as parts of the brain associated with motor control of the mouth, lips, tongue, jaw, throat, and breathing. These centres are primarily required for listening and speaking skills.
English Dost is the brainchild of three individuals: Ram Kakkad, Founder and content and pedagogy in-charge; Vivek Iyer, co-Founder working on business development and design; and Pankaj Chand the co-Founder handling technology. The team-members have expertise spanning across strategy consulting, business development, and technical product development in well-known companies such as Oracle, Capital One, and InMobi.
It was Ram’s search for an effective solution to teach himself spoken Spanish that led to the genesis of this startup. Ram knew that even at IIT Bombay,from where he had graduated,students from tier two cities found it difficult to express themselves in English despite getting good grades.
Ram was conceptualising the idea in his mind for awhile. He was unable to find a solution that could teach him spoken Spanish efficiently and simultaneously provide enough practice. Ram met Vivek at InMobi and the duo started discussing the idea and space further. They looked at applications such as Duolingo (pioneers of the language instruction through mobile applications) and other popular alternatives such as Busuu. Their research led to an untapped sub-set of the market, which included individuals who could read and understand English but had low proficiency in the spoken language. Vivek, while working in China, Japan, and Korea realised that the scale of the problem was global.
The duo left InMobi in April 2014 to develop theinitial concept. Through a common friend, they met Pankaj who felt a strong personal attachment to the cause. Pankaj an IIT Madras graduate in computer science, was from Uttarakh and, and had struggled with English until he came to IIT and subsequently joined the workforce. Pankaj’s technical expertise proved invaluable since he was responsible for translating the ideas into a well-designed application.
The nuts and bolts
The founders believe that the most effective way to teach is through storytelling. English Dost follows a format where the student can experience role-playing and simulation games while practicing spoken English. The app focuses strongly on speaking as opposed to learning grammar rules. Currently, English Dost caters to the Hindi-speaking audience and will soon expand to other regional languages. The team is hoping to add 10-12 more languages by the end of this year. The app uses a chat format, Hindi prompts are given to the user who is expected to reply in English. Users are scored and also given real-time feedback.
The founders have used the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages that details the requirements for each level of proficiency. For example, a user at level A1 is a beginner, and someone at a B2 level could be working at a BPO. The framework has helped the English Dost team quantify their users' learning and the app’s efficiency and effectiveness.Targeted practice that involves the user having four conversations a day on the app can result in a marked improvement in 30 days; taking a person starting at the B1 level to the end of that level.
Let’s talk numbers
Within four months of its launch, the app has 10,000 plus downloads, and is growing 20 per cent w/o/w, and enjoys a rating of 4.5 across 500 odd reviews. It has about 1,100 daily active users averaging five conversations per day. Over 65,000 English conversations and 5,00,000 English sentences have been practiced.The team at English Dost is religiously tracking their metrics and hopes to improve it through the launch of a slew of features like offline speech recognition. The team is also going aggressively after growth and aims to end the year with about a million users.
The founders want to continue providing the service free to users. They are planning to monetise their service by building tie-ups with employers, who would like to recruit employees skilled in spoken English, and train their existing employees. For now, they are bootstrapped and want to develop the B2C side with a large customer base and high levels of engagement. They are looking to raise funds during the quarter to scale further.
The English Dost team has a simple vision:to enable the 200 million people with smartphones,who are going to be in India’s job market, to speak in English with confidence.