It starts with my first job out of college teaching English at a middle school in Guangzhou, China in 1988. There, as a fresh graduate with no teaching experience, I discovered the power of using authentic media like songs to teach English and motivate students.
I noticed my students were most enthusiastic about a lesson I gave using the song, Tom’s Diner, by Suzanne Vega. When I found my students repeating lines like “I am sitting in the morning, at the diner on the corner” to me in the playground weeks after my class, I realized these were my best lessons. Lessons, like this Suzanne Vega’s song, based on authentic media were the ones that stuck with my students the best and the ones which my students were most motivated to turn into productive English conversation.
That experience teaching in China stayed with me during the 10 years I subsequently spent in the speech recognition industry, working at AT&T Labs, and then SpeechWorks, one of the early pioneers in the Speech Recognition industry using technology spun out of M.I.T.
SpeechWorks eventually became part of Nuance, where I ended up as Vice President for Asia Pacific & Japan. Based in Tokyo, I saw the huge demand for conversational English practice in Asia. I saw the solution as combining speech recognition technologies with fun and engaging content online, so that anyone with Internet access could have an on-demand, 24/7 “English tutor” giving them real time feedback.
With a seed investment led by Axel Bichara of Atlas Ventures, one of the founding investors of SpeechWorks, I left Nuance to start EnglishCentral in the beginning of 2009.
In June 2009, Google Ventures joined as an investor. The Google Investment was led by Rich Miner, who has a strong background in speech recognition and mobile from his role as co-founder at both Android (later bought by Google), and Wildfire, an early attempt to provide a speech recognition powered service for mobile carriers.
The site launched in August of 2010 as a free beta and acquired over 150,000 beta members. At the beginning of 2011, EnglishCentral launched its first commercial product, combining the twin pillars of video content and speech technologies into a Freemium service which allows casual users to watch and practice speaking lines from over a thousand videos, and provides a premium service for users who want to systemically improve their pronunciation, build their vocabulary and track their progress.
With that momentum, in December 2010, EnglishCentral added NTT, the largest carrier in Japan, to our team of investors.
There is much more coming from EnglishCentral this year. A Korean version is now available, and a Spanish version not far behind, targeting the US market.
The team at EnglishCentral will be communicating often about our plans on this blog. Your comments are also always welcome and appreciated.
Enjoy the EnglishCentral Blog!