LA is filled with dialect coaches helping actors prepare for roles, and maybe acquire or lose an accent. But for people trying to mask their accent and sound more American, they can turn to more than a human coach.
The app ELSA Speak uses artificial intelligence to give people detailed feedback on their English pronunciation so they can minimize their accent.
The founder of ELSA Speak, Vu Van, was born and raised in Vietnam. She tells Press Play that when she moved to the U.S. for her MBA at Stanford, people had a tough time understanding her, often asking her to repeat herself.
She couldn't find many options on the market to help her pronunciation. Eventually, she paid a speech therapist $200/hour for assistance.
After graduating, she worked in consulting and saw international colleagues having the same problem. She looked toward technology, AI and voice recognition. Her goal was to “see how we can generate that same experience I had with a speech therapist...but make it a lot more accessible to people out there in the world,” she says.
How does ELSA Speak work?
A user takes an assessment test to see how accented their English is. The standard they're measured against is the American midwestern accent. Vu says when building the app, her team consulted speech therapists, and they considered the midwestern accent as the most neutral-sounding in American English.
Each test taker gets a score, which is based on their pronunciations of words. "The goal of your speech is to be able to communicate confidently and clearly, and people can understand you," Vu says.
She notes that if one's job requires them to speak perfect American English, then that's a different motivation.
She also points to research that says speaking English with a strong accent gets in the way of building trust and credibility. "People will trust you 30% less if you speak English with a really strong accent," she says.
However, if more people keep their accents, then accents would become more common and mainstream. Wouldn't that reduce distrust and discrimination? "For me, I am in the camp up of you don't have to get rid of your accent at all,” she says. “If you get to an 80% score, you are good enough, and you should move on because we're not trying to get you to 100%."
No such thing as neutral?
Lisa B. Davidson, Professor & Chair of Linguistics at NYU, doesn't believe there's a neutral American accent. She tells Press Play that linguists believe there are many regional accents within the U.S., but people also move around a lot and thus speak a variety of American English.
When people move to the U.S. and try to learn English and minimize their accent, how does that affect the diversity of languages here?
"It's not like all non-native speakers of American English all sound like each other… We know that whatever your first language is -- is going to have a big effect on the way that you pronounce the sounds of your second language… So it would be hard to homogenize under those circumstances," Davidson says.
--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Yael Even Or