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ESL conversation partner goes mobile

July 3, 2012
Amy Dove
Tags: newsalumni

 It only took one bad experience for Kosta ChatziSpiros to swear to himself he would never try speaking a new language in public again.

His French conversation skills weren’t great and the end result left him hesitant to try again. What he needed was more practice, but finding someone to be a sounding board can often be as tricky as learning the language itself.

That is why the Royal Roads University MBA alumnus partnered with Julie Zilber to help her bring her idea to reality. Supiki, set to officially launch this fall, is a fluency tool aimed at helping people improve their conversation skills. The program has garnered nearly $1 million in combined funding from National Research Council IRAP and Canada Media Fund.

“Supiki is a conversation practice partner in your pocket. It’s something you can take with you anytime, anywhere so that in between your English lessons, classes and tutoring, you can keep practising,” ChatziSpiros says. “This is embarrassment free. Supiki isn’t going to judge you.”

Using smartphones, users can download units of Supiki as they learn, helping them to develop their skills while following a story to keep them engaged. The Newcomers is an animated soap opera that follows Chung Li and Maria del Toro as they discover life, love and North American culture. With each chapter of the story, users can practise conversation skills and learn idioms. As students practise they are recorded, allowing them to listen to themselves or send a file to a teacher or tutor for feedback.

Zilber got the idea why travelling throughout Asia in 1999. She noticed that while people who were studying English were able to read and write the language, they found it harder to carry out a conversation. 

“There are over a billion people in any given year learning English as a second language and most of them, even if they are here in North America, have very little opportunity to practise,” Zilber says. “The one thing that people consistently say is missing is enough real conversational practice.”

She built a prototype of a cellphone program that was based on the idea that you could have a system that would listen to what people said and provide realistic responses. ChatziSpiros had the piece she didn’t, which was the ability to actually commercialize something, she says. The pair launched LinguaComm in 2005 and Supiki is the first major project to hit the market.

There are other programs available that allow learners to practise a conversation, but they work off a set script, Zilber says. What sets Supiki apart is the underlying technology that allows it to understand what a person is saying and respond in a way that keeps the conversation moving forward.

“We have actually figured out a way to understand the semantic meaning of what a person says and then provide a meaningful conversational response,” she says. “In a real conversation you have to understand what the other person said and come up with a response, and that is a hugely challenging to do when you are learning.”

It’s important for people to know how to have conversations, and there is really a fundamental difference between reading and writing and speaking and listening, she says.

“A two-year-old is fluent. She might not have great vocabulary, but she can clearly communicate, ‘want cookie’. There is no problem with fluency there,” she says. “For many people in many countries there is such an emphasis on accuracy that it inhibits their ability to gain fluency. We are really focused on that part of the equation.”

Students already have access to great tutors and teachers, but those very people are often the ones who will say go find a person to practise talking with, ChatziSpiros says.

“We think it will be something that complements hugely the great work that tutors and teachers already do to encourage their students to keep at it and practise, practise, practise.”