New, Bellevue-Based App Teaches English Pronunciation Using AI

Blue Canoe Learning uses AI to teach English pronunciation.
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This article appears in print in the April 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

It won’t teach you a new language, but Blue Canoe Learning’s new game app —powered by machine learning — promises to help people around the world communicate more effectively in English.

Like many good ideas, Blue Canoe was born over a cup of coffee. CEO Sarah Daniels, who had previously worked at Bellevue-based DreamBox Learning, was looking for a financially promising project that would also assist people. Tech entrepreneur Amit Mital suggested they meet and told Daniels about the Color Vowel system. It had been proven effective by the Peace Corps and others in improving nonnative English speakers’ pronunciation by associating vowel sounds with colors, helping people hear differences in sounds the brain stops recognizing after childhood.

Photo of CEO Sarah Daniels by John Vicory

“Amit suggested licensing that methodology and digitizing it, and figured out how to scale it using cutting-edge speech recognition and machine learning and gamifying it into an app,” Daniels explains.

After some research, Daniels’ response was “a resounding yes.” While English language learning is a $50 billion global industry, tens of millions of people still can’t communicate well because they don’t know how to pronounce what they read. The letter “o” she says, can be pronounced eight different ways.

Blue Canoe Learning developed a game app that lets users improve by focusing attention on the key areas — the stress in a word and the proper vowel sounds — that are most important to being understood.

And with machine learning, Daniels adds, “Every time different language groups use it, their audio helps our whole system get better.”

The company has attracted $1.4 million in venture funding and plans to offer the product to corporations worldwide later this year, focusing first on call centers and companies with foreign engineers. Blue Canoe will sell per-seat subscriptions to corporations, Daniels says, but will also donate them to help nonprofits aid immigrants and others in need.

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