Like having an English teacher in your pocket

Israeli ESL program SpeakingPal gives non-English speakers interactive language lessons over their mobile phone.

 Like having an English teacher in your pocket


"Our system is the most effective way for non-English speakers to acquire the skills they need to communicate clearly," Eyal Eshed, CEO of SpeakingPal.

By David Halevi

Israel, according to Eyal Eshed, is one of the world leaders in producing materials for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs – and his company, SpeakingPal, has had a bit to do with building that reputation. SpeakingPal’s video tutorials to reinforce proper English language usage and pronunciation have proven very popular for ESL giant Educational Testing Service – the educational content giant that administers 50 million standardized American entrance exams for college and graduate schools every year.

"Everybody seems to want to learn English these days, since it is the language of international communication," says Eshed. "And we believe that our system is the most effective way for non-English speakers to acquire the skills they need to communicate clearly and effectively in English."

SpeakingPal’s educational philosophy could be termed "mobile immersion learning." The system consists of a video-based dialogue series that users access via cell phone, since more and more people are using their mobile devices as the primary gateway to online services. The dialogues are short in order to allow users to take advantage of a few minutes of free time to practice their English.

Color-coded feedback

The dialogues consist of the kind of encounters travelers, tourists and businesspeople usually find themselves in, like "Do you want to change your reservation?" or "Do you want to change money?" The presenter makes a statement or asks a question, and the user chooses a response and speaks it into the phone; the presenter makes another statement based on the response. This automated "branch dialogue" system allows users to participate in different dialogues within the same scenarios, Eshed says.

 Like having an English teacher in your pocket

SpeakingPal hopes that its lighthearted and humorous approach
will help people learn English more effectively.

Following the dialogue, the system gives feedback in the form of a color-coded grading system (green for "good," red for "needs improvement," etc.) Eshed says this is much easier for users to understand than numbers.

"You can get feedback on an entire session, or even individual sentences and words," says Eshed. "You get the feedback on the spot, so you can try again immediately to improve your performance, and since the feedback is very specific, you know exactly what you need to improve on. It’s like having an English teacher in your pocket."

In addition to ETS, SpeakingPal has a partnership deal with other English education services in Europe and Asia. The company was a finalist in the most recent Red Herring Top 100 Europe awards and in the Mobility Awards.  "These nominations are very exciting for a small startup company such as ours," says Eshed. "We are happy to have been able to produce a highly interactive application that simulates the most natural use of the mobile – talking to another person on the phone – for use in learning programs."

SpeakingPal was established in 2009 and is funded by a group of private investors. With just 10 full-time employees, the company has been successful in a tough arena, battling major players like Nuance and Sensory for market share.

An important part of SpeakingPal’s success is that it’s just a fun product to use, says Eshed.

Learning English can be "a boring process. And learning in a dull and unmotivated way is a sure way to kill the one aspect of learning that ignites the way to success – desire to perform well," he says. "However, if this performance is made into an engaging experience, the road to success is well paved. So, how can you ‘drill’ and still make it exciting? By practicing speaking content in a way that is engaging, entertaining and has shades of situational comedy. After all, we all like to be in a situation that is lighthearted and humorous. Why not make this an educational and learning experience as well?"