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Artificial intelligence

Former Google engineer returns to China to start English-language teaching app

The Liulishuo virtual English teacher app, used by 50 million people in China, will correct grammar and pronunciation until it is right

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 11:38am

Wang Yi graduated from China’s elite Tsinghua University, earned his PhD in computer science at Princeton, then went to work for Google in Mountain View, California. Then he quit to return to China to teach English.

Or to be more precise – to start a company offering English lessons through an app powered by artificial intelligence. How is it different from an ordinary tutoring app? This virtual English teacher will correct your grammar and pronunciation until it is right, using a database of speech and terms built up by the company.

Called “Liulishuo” – “speaking fluently” in English – the start-up, established in 2012, has received the backing of investors including China Media Capital, Wu Capital, IDG and GGV Capital, and raised close to US$100 million in its latest funding round. The app has more than 50 million registered users, of whom 600,000 are paying subscribers, said Wang. The company became profitable in February, he said.

“Going abroad, watching original English content and career development are the three major reasons why Chinese people are in a frenzy to learn English,” Wang, 37, said in an interview in Guangzhou. But the top-notch language schools in China charge high annual fees and many students sign up, take a few lessons and do not go back, he said.

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Nearly 300 million people in China are reportedly taking English-language courses, helping language schools generate a total of 500 billion yuan (US$75.5 billion) in sales so far this year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Of that, digital courses accounted for 35.5 billion yuan, or just 7 per cent, of the total. Liulishuo is competing with many other language apps as well as English-language schools like EF Education First and Disney English.

While Wang has left Silicon Valley, he has returned in a way by setting up an AI lab in October, headed by Liu Yang, an AI expert who previously worked for Facebook. Wang said the US-based lab would help attract talent who did not want to move to China, and would also help the company stay close to the current world epicentre for AI research.

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Kirk Boodry, an analyst at New Street Research, said that while AI is “increasingly a requirement for internet services in China”, it will be standard in a few years even if it is new and generating a lot of headlines today.

AI technologies can be applied across a wide range of industries and applications, including mobile education, he said in an email.

Before co-founding the company with fellow Tsinghua graduate Lin Hui and another engineer, Hu Zheren, Wang, who was born in Hangzhou, worked as a product manager at Google. He resigned to return to China and started Liulishuo after seeing many talented Chinese struggle to keep pace with others in the US due to a lack in proficiency in English.

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Liulishou’s app is able to assess the level of English proficiency of the user and deliver listening, speaking and reading content at the appropriate level, Wang said. The system instantly corrects mistakes made by the user, and scores their performance to provide a benchmark for progress.

University students and working adults account for the bulk of paying users of the app, which charges fees starting from 99 yuan a month. About 60 per cent of Liulishuo’s app users are female.

“The best teacher in the future will no longer be human. It will be the best human teachers whose skills can be converted into products available for even more students,” Wang said.