Tuesday, 12 November 2013

eLearning Interview - Jennifer Collins from Saundz

Next in the series of eLearning Interviews is with Jennifer Collins (@jennifer_collie), content creator and marketing extraordinaire for the pronunciation app Saundz

The app was created for the ESL market due to Saundz' belief that pronunciation is the most common area of language inadequacy for non-native speakers of American English, and at the same time that correct pronunciation is a necessity for international career opportunities. 

Based in Serbia but with an international management team, Saundz' aim, according to their site, is to help us make what we say more important than how we say it! 

Here's what Jennifer had to say in response to a few elearning questions:

1. What are some of the challenges of teaching pronunciation online?

One of the major challenges is definitely related to the concept of ‘global English’ and the impossibility to cover all the regional varieties of English in most ESL/EFL classes. Additionally, pronunciation is generally regarded as an ‘inferior’ aspect of language learning in relation to grammar and vocabulary. In practice, teachers rarely have time to carry out efficient pronunciation exercises in class, simply because each student may have a different problem.
Motivated students, therefore, frequently seek ways to practice outside the classroom and get in touch with native speakers, which can be immensely difficult in some regions. Considering the general deficit of native English instructors in some countries, learners cannot easily get used to authentic English pronunciations and make distinctions between English sounds and the equivalents in their mother tongues.
      2. How do you think that Saundz overcomes some of these issues?
Saundz contains a set of exercises (161 lessons) that deal with problematic areas in English pronunciation. Learners have access to native speakers’ recordings of all 40 American English sounds and more than 400 words. There is a record-and-compare functionality that enables students to compare their voice with native speakers and understand what they may be doing wrong.
Practically, we provide ESL students with three essential things for learning pronunciation: a) concise curriculum, b) efficient exercises and c) native speakers. 

3. Can you talk a little about your methodology and how you focus on different aspects of pronunciation on the site? Are there any areas that you have decided to avoid teaching?
Saundz methodology is quite straightforward: 1) students listen to native speakers, watch the animation of speech mechanics, read the instructions for correct positioning of vocal organs, and 2) in the recording mode, they can make multiple recordings of each lesson item, play them back, send them to servers and hear them compared to a native speaker’s voice. They practice sound by sound, until they are able to identify and pronounce even the most difficult combinations of sounds.
As for the areas we currently don’t teach, some definitely exist but I wouldn’t say we avoided them. The Saundz curriculum is efficient in its present form but we are working on its potential expansion  

4. A lot of the metalinguistic information on the site is given in English. Do you feel that this could be a problem for lower level English speakers wanting to improve their pronunciation?
We believe that providing the content in English should trigger students’ curiosity and enhance their motivation for learning English but we are aware of the potential problems. This is why we try to simplify the site content as much as we can and make it more visual. Also, we intend to localize Saundz to different languages and enable learners to read curriculum instructions in their mother tongues. 

5. With a move towards thinking of English as a lingua franca, why do Saundz specifically teach American English pronunciation?
American English increasingly becomes a ‘variety of choice’ for many English language learners all over the world and this is why we decided to focus on it. International business communication, education and politics revolve around American English; many US-based companies operate on foreign territories and hire international workforce that is expected to have excellent spoken English skills. While RP may work well in school curricula, GA seems to work much better in real-life situations.

6. How do you encourage users to improve their real world communicative competence through use of your software?
Even though pronunciation is a frequently overlooked aspect of language learning, it can significantly contribute to students’ overall confidence about their language skills. Most of their problems with spoken English stem from the fact that they are afraid of being misunderstood or even laughed at because of their accent. This general discomfort prevents them from developing their language skills and we want to help them become aware of the exact pronunciation problems they may have. 

7. You've chosen to have a friendly avatar agent named Simone. What role does she play in your web app?
We’re very proud of Simone! She’s a key component of our teaching methodology.

Simone is a fully computer-generated animation that displays movements of vocal organs in the process of sound articulation. Front view shows how her lips move in synchrony with a given sound or word, while the side-view indicates airflow, nasality, turbulence inside of mouth, tongue, palate and jaw movements.

See Simone in action:

8. What do you do to increase engagement and motivation in your users?
We know that students are usually not very enthusiastic about constant repetitions of words and phonemes but you can’t actually practice pronunciation without these. Among the things we included are the Merit Badges that students earn when they master particularly difficult lessons. This is our attempt at gamification of the software and making pronunciation more interesting.

9. There is a really great variety of English language blog content on your site. Can you tell us a bit about the target audience and the thinking behind the posts?
We want our blog to introduce ESL learners to the basics of English phonology and give them some tips for better spoken skills. However, our interest in general language issues is very dominant, so we publish other kinds of articles as well. As much as we want to engage learners, we do want to connect with professionals in the niche and create content that would be interesting for them too.  

10. What do you see as the future of online language learning?
Development of the Internet and social networks has already brought about important changes in general language learning practices. In near future, private tutoring will predominantly rely on Skype because this is a great way for students to get in touch with native speakers of their target languages; I expect more language learning networks to develop, online academies to flourish and more teachers to share their experiences and learning materials online.
Online space offers one important thing that traditional classrooms usually don’t include - access to native speakers. I believe this is the major reason why language learning communities grow so rapidly and why they will have a truly bright future.
I think that Saundz are correct that pronunciation practice, especially explicit practice, is often overlooked in classroom settings and there is a real need for an edtech solution to this problem. I would say that rather than lots of teachers thinking it's inferior, most just find the area confusing and complex and lack sufficient guidance on how to help learners with their problems.

I think features of Saundz such as record-and-compare are great as they really help learners focus on and therefore notice the differences between the way they speak and the model, and may give them an idea of how bad pronunciation can put a real strain on the listener. 
Badges and awards can be a great motivator, especially when dealing with a fairly repetitive subject matter, and it would be interesting to know the kind of impact these had on engagement with this type of topic area. Were some A/B tests used to indicate the effect and was the system designed around these findings I wonder?

I do think that whilst it's good to aim to be efficient and concise in the world of elearning, it's a shame not to focus more on pronunciation at a whole word and sentence level. Especially as the aim is to build up learner confidence in their ability to converse and be understood. And I'm not sure that many users would be motivated by such a degree of metalang, unless they were of a very high level and had a very specific need for improved, naturalised pronunciation.

Saundz does a great, and engaging job of allowing users to focus explicitly on pronunciation, and make themselves more intelligible in the process. It will be interesting to see how they develop the app from here and how effective they are at reaching a wider ESL audience.

Thanks very much to Jennifer for answering my questions, and excited to keep up to date with what's on offer at Saundz.
Have you or any of your students used Saundz? It would be good to hear how it went. 

And check out these other eLearning interviews with eltjam and with Jason Levine 


  1. Thanks for your time, Jo! I really enjoyed answering your questions.
    Pronunciation is indeed a complex topic and I'm happy to have discussions like these because I believe they are essential for future development of both Saundz and pronunciation teaching practices.

  2. My pleasure. Yes, it's always good to get a discussion going, and help find our way to best practice and best methods of helping learners.

    I was interested that you had corrected some of my questions from saying 'website' to 'web app'. Can you tell me what you see as the main difference? Is it a technical distinction for you, or do you see it more as a difference in terms of user behaviour?

  3. The website is a place for people to find out more about Saundz and the people behind it, while the actual pronunciation exercises are inside the app. I just didn't want the readers to assume that the website is our primary resource for teaching - the app is :)
    Also, Simone's role on the website is not as important as in the app and I believe this was the question I made a change to.