Pittsburgh-based startup WeSpeke is offering free English lessons to the world. And through a unique partnership with CNN, they’re doing it by using real-time news stories adapted by artificial intelligence into customized classes for each student.
At an app and web portal called en.news, WeSpeke uses proprietary Natural Language Processing software and machine learning to essentially deconstruct news stories and podcasts into their grammatical parts.
“We grab all those nouns and verbs and put them into a bucket,” explains Mike Elchik, WeSpeke’s president and co-founder. “Then we use the same technology to grab those words and automatically create a pedagogically structured, leveled and game-ified English lesson.”
WeSpeke’s theory is this: Everybody spends time keeping up on headlines, especially related to their favorite subjects. And many people around the world want to learn English or improve the English they already speak. Why not let them do it all at the same time.
A young man in São Paulo who loves soccer, Elchik says, can learn English from following sports. At the same time, a young woman in Tokyo who loves fashion and movies can learn new English vocabulary through CNN stories on who wore what at the Golden Globes.
“What all that does,” Elchik says, “is it brings a really cool user experience.”
The technology was born out of the work of WeSpeke co-founder Dr. Jaime Carbonell, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, who Elchik describes as “the Mick Jagger of A.I.”
And the methodology behind the classes connects this high-tech project with Pittsburgh’s long history as a center of English language teaching. Lessons found at en.news were designed with the help of Dr. Alan Juffs, director of the English Language Institute (ELI) at the University of Pittsburgh. The ELI, created in 1964, is one of the oldest and most respected intensive English language learning centers in the U.S.
Juffs serves on WeSpeke’s board of advisors and consults to ensure that lessons are effectively designed and pedagogically sound, says Elchik. This is key for students around the world, because in many countries affordable English lessons are taught primarily by native English speakers with little or no teaching knowledge or method to their approach.