IBM India uses Web to teach English language skills

IBM's research lab in India has developed technology that helps speakers of English as a second language to improve their language skills

IBM's India Research Laboratory has developed a web-based tool to help those who speak English as a second language to assess and improve their language skills. The technology, called Sensei for the Japanese word for teacher, was developed by the lab for IBM's call center and back office transaction processing services operation in India, IBM Daksh Business Process Services.

Call centers and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in India have thousands of staff to assess and train. This is currently a manual process, and automating the process with the new technology will bring huge benefits for these operations, Daniel Dias, director of the lab, said on Thursday.

The software uses advanced speech processing techniques, and has helped IBM Daksh speed up assessment of job candidates and training of staff, said Ashish Verma, a researcher at the India Lab.

The focus of the software is on building English speaking skills in a neutral accent that will be universally understood, Verma said.

A key problem faced by India's call center industry is that staff who can write English often do not speak it fluently, or their pronunciation tends to be influenced by their mother tongue. Call centers and software development operations that require their staff to talk to clients abroad find this a problem. This has created an opportunity for specialized companies that train staff to speak English.

The technology developed by IBM evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other spoken-language skills, and provides detailed scores for each category. It uses specially-adapted speech recognition software to score the pronunciation of passages and the stressing of syllables for individual words, Verma said. The technology also consists of voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests which identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing examples of correct pronunciation and grammar, he added.

The software will run on Windows and Linux operating systems, though the prototype currently runs on Windows, the company said.

IBM is working with partners and customers on the potential applications of the technology, Dias said. The lab will work in consultation with other groups in IBM on decisions relating to the commercialization of the technology, he added.

The technology has applications in a number of areas besides call centers, according to Dias. As a result of globalization, the ability to speak in English has become important in business, he said.

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