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No need to be afraid of speaking English anymore: international startup Sensay uses AI to help you speak confidently

Angela Kao 2021/08/24

According to British Council, there are 1.5 billion English-language learners worldwide, and Taiwan is no exception. The Taiwanese government has set a goal of developing Taiwan into a Mandarin–English bilingual nation by 2030. However, when it comes to speaking English, it is often a nightmare for many English learners. Compared to existing English-learning Apps, Sensay offers a voice AI solution for teachers, assisting the language educators to instill speaking confidence in their students.

Sensay is designed as an online homework platform. It allows English educators to assign speaking exercises for students to verbally reply to. On top of that, the teachers don't have to check and mark the assignments by themselves. Sensay's voice AI will rate students’ responses and pinpoint the words they mispronounced. According to their survey, 87% of the students reported feeling more confident speaking English after only 10 days of using Sensay.

Yet, being able to speak English confidently isn't the case for most Taiwanese. Caren Chen, the founder and the CEO of Sensay, noticed that speaking English can be stressful even for the people working at an international enterprise.

Born and raised in the U.S, Caren moved to Taiwan in 2017 as part of a commercial leadership program at GSK after getting her MBA from USC. She did marketing rotations in New Jersey, Beijing, and the third stop was working in Taiwan as the Chief of Staff.

“A lot of my colleagues had to speak with others in English, but they were terrified. They've got this self-belief that their English isn't good enough to speak English well, ” said Caren.

She then realized that it results from childhood trauma. A lot of people told her that they were scolded by parents and teachers, and even laughed at by classmates when practicing speaking English when they were students.

As Caren was in the education field herself, working at the first NPO in Los Angeles to focus exclusively on educational equity, “that pain really resonates with me,” she said. Thus, she couldn't help but wonder, how can technology help build Taiwanese students’ confidence in speaking English?

Students using Sensay to practice speaking English

A team full of language learning experience: the power of“speaking out loud”

Caren then met Priscilla Wang, who's now the Product Manager of Sensay. Priscilla graduated with a degree in Computer Engineering from Columbia University, and she came to Taiwan in 2020 and worked at JPMorgan as a software engineer.

In addition, Priscilla is an experienced English learner as an immigrant. Yet, not only a student, she was also an educator, who tutored Chinese and programming at college in the U.S. From her experience, reading the words out loud multiple times was one of the key techniques to master the language.

Sensay's CTO Lukas Horak, who encountered Caren at an event held by Anchor Taiwan in 2017, is also interested in developing solutions for language learners through technology as an engineer. Hailing from the Czech Republic and being raised in a family of educators, Lukas knows how difficult it is to pick up a new language as well.

Therefore, the team decided to develop a product to help students repeatedly speak the language through voice AI. However, there already are so many English-learning platforms and APPs. How can they stand out from other companies?

Educators can create speaking exercises on Sensay, allowing students to practice on any device anytime, anywhere.

Not just an English-learning platform, but the tool for educators

Caren noticed that people often stop and quit using those self-learning Apps for only a few weeks or even days after they started. She thinks this shows that teachers are still playing a significant role in learning a language.

“We believe what motivates the learner is another person. Not technology. No technology can replace the teacher, ”said Caren.“People need the connection with their teachers, and we don't want to take that human connection away. We want to support them.”

Thus, they decided to cooperate with the teachers, who can ensure the kids keep practicing speaking English.“Our goal is to empower language educators. Sensay is a tool for educators,”she said.

In Sensay, educators can create a speaking exercise for students. The teachers can ask students to read a passage, answer a question, respond to a video. Students can then access the speaking exercise using a unique PIN code, record themselves speaking, and submit their responses.

Sensay's proprietary AI will provide precision analytics on the student's conversational skills, and the feedback is available to both the student and the educator. Since the students can record and submit their voices through their phones instead of feeling judged and corrected by others, they are more comfortable and eager to speak English with Sensay.

Sensay's voice AI will mark different colors according to the accuracy of students' pronunciation.

In May, Sensay cooperated with cram schools in Taiwan to conduct product tests. 11 students aged 10-15 in the institution used Sensay to deliver English speeches on issues such as global warming. In the 21-day course, Sensay collected nearly 400 English recordings with an average of 13.3 minutes per student. The result showed that 82% of students have improved their fluency and pronunciation.

Currently, Sensay is still free for use. The team is planning to set up their business model in the early fall, and it's likely to be a subscription model which will be paid by students as part of the teaching materials.

“It's like giving back to Taiwan. I really want to help Taiwan as a Taiwanese American, and see how technology can transform education.”

About the Author
Angela Kao
Author >

Angela Kao is a freelance journalist pursuing a master's degree in Journalism at National Taiwan University. With experiences in both starups and media organizations, she is devoted to reporting news regarding startups and trending technologies in Taiwan.

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