Language Learners' Needs Video

Should language learners try to sound like native speakers?

Today we bring you the latest segment in a video series by Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who’s answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

When teaching and learning a second language, we often look to the native speaker as the ultimate model, but is this a reasonable goal? Most learners will never have the same command of grammar as native speakers, but does that mean we shouldn’t focus on improving their grammar skills? According to Dr. Nielson, it all comes down to why learners want to learn a second language and how they plan on using it in the real world.


Did you miss the first video of the series? Check out Dr. Nielson’s detailed overview of second language acquisition here.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Nielson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Voxy Patents Innovative Approach to Second Language Learning

Voxy’s Totally Unique Approach to Language Learning

Voxy recently received a patent for its innovative approach to language learning, but why is this so important and what makes Voxy’s approach different from other methodologies? Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine B. Nielson, breaks it down for us.

VOXY: What does this patent mean for Voxy?

KBN: One of the things that makes Voxy unique is our ability to efficiently create language learning materials from authentic resources, such as news stories, videos, songs, audio recordings and images. We’ve developed a method that allows us to do this by using both natural language processing techniques and review by language learning experts. This allows us to harness the power of automating certain parts of our materials development process while also keeping the unique benefits that only trained language instructors can bring.

What exactly is keyword extraction, and how does Voxy apply this method to language learning content?

Keyword extraction refers to the process of identifying the keywords that are most relevant to understanding the meaning of a text. Voxy takes this one step further and also chooses words that are important for learners at specific levels to learn. Voxy’s approach uses both individual keywords as well as key phrases and collocations, which are words that frequently go together (like ‘business plan’ or ‘such as’).

Why is it so important to provide real-world content to learners, rather than write new instructional material from scratch?

As wonderful as language teachers are, they are not subject matter experts on every topic in the world. We need to give learners examples of the types of written documents they’ll encounter in everyday life, from news articles to Tweets and emails. We also know from empirical research that people aren’t very good at writing dialogues that mimic the types of exchanges that happen in real life. For example, in a textbook you might find a dialogue that looks like this:

Customer:  I would like a cup of coffee, please.

Server:  Of course, one moment please.

In reality, that exchange might look more like this:

Customer:  Can I get a venti with room?

Server: (No response.)

Teaching with real-world materials is more efficient, realistic and practical because learners get examples of the language they will really need to accomplish their goals without being exposed to things like scripted exchanges that won’t actually help them.

How do you know which words and collocations are the most relevant to people learning English as a second language, and why does that matter?

The most important words are the ones that help learners understand the meaning of the texts, audios, and videos that they encounter, and this is why we start with a keyword extraction approach that finds those very words.  In addition, there has been research on the words necessary for language learning.  For example, depending on both the proficiency level and needs of the learners for whom the resources are chosen, we select words that are among the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language and words that are used frequently in academic and scientific articles, as well as phrases that scientists have identified as the ones most useful for non-native speakers.

Not all keyword extraction techniques are created equal—what does Voxy do differently from other content publishers that makes its lessons so unique?

Other publishers rely on more manual processes and human beings to produce their materials. Voxy’s approach of using a combination of natural language processing techniques and human review allows us to create thousands of hours of content in a scalable and unified way at a much, much faster rate than other language learning companies.

Voxy’s approach to content creation has big implications for partner organizations that want to customize content for their learners. Can you explain how Voxy can turn any piece of content into an effective lesson?

Because we can quickly and easily transform real-world content into lessons, we’re able to create units for partner organizations using their existing real-world materials in an efficient and scalable way. After working with an organization to analyze the English needs of various job roles, we can take video recordings made for Human Resources training, employee handbooks and internal correspondence and create relevant language learning lessons for employees.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Katie Nielson SLA Class

Dr. Katharine Nielson: Back in the Classroom

As Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, I oversee our pedagogical approach to second language acquisition (SLA) and all of our SLA-related research. Learning a second language is one of the most complicated things that a person can do, and I’ve dedicated my career to identifying the most effective ways to help language learners and teachers.

I was 20 years old when I first taught English as a second language, and I realized almost immediately that I loved teaching. The only problem was that I didn’t exactly know what I was doing back then! Since then, I’ve spent countless hours in classrooms learning as a student, researcher and instructor, and I know a lot more about language learning and teaching than I did 20 years ago. Today, my role at Voxy gives me the unique opportunity to apply the latest research to Voxy’s groundbreaking English learning platform.

In addition to leading the Voxy Education Team, I’m also back in a teaching role, this time at Hunter College here in New York. The course will cover a range of topics, including the academic theories that explain how language learning works, the qualities that make it easier for some people to acquire second languages, best practices for teaching languages with the help of technology and how to use real-world tasks as a teaching method.

I’m so excited to be back in a classroom where I can continue a dialogue with other instructors about how to best meet learners’ needs. Teaching gives me new insights into the challenges facing English language learners and their teachers today, and it also requires me to be as up-to-date as possible on the latest language research. At Voxy, we’re not just committed to providing the most innovative technology—we’re merging the most advanced language learning platform with proven teaching methods to help our learners improve their English proficiency and accomplish their language learning goals in the real world.

Throughout the course of the semester, we’ll be creating special video lessons based on what I’m teaching week to week. Check out the first installment below! You’ll hear a high-level overview of how SLA works, what type of practice language learners need and the way environmental and psychological factors affect language acquisition.



Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Voxy Blue Canary

Introducing ‘Scotch on the Vox,’ Voxy’s New Engineering Blog

Calling all coders! Voxy’s Engineering team has launched its very own tech blog, Scotch on the Vox, and their inaugural announcement is the release of a new open-source tech tool called Blue Canary.

Blue Canary allows you to automate infrastructure management in a whole new way. Services like Amazon Cloudwatch let you to set up an alarm system to let you know when your technology systems are experiencing problems, but configuring the notifications to alert you to those problems can be extremely time-consuming. These services also assume that you can anticipate all the problems that might arise, which isn’t always the case.

With Blue Canary, you can tell the tool how you want your system to work, and it will automatically create a comprehensive set of notifications so that you can spend less time troubleshooting and maintaining your systems, and more time building new and exciting code!

For more information or to install Blue Canary and take it for a test drive, check it out on GitHub or the Python Package Index. To keep up with the Voxy Engineering team, visit

Becalos English Challenge

Voxy Joins the Becalos English Challenge!

Voxy is honored to be joining forces with Becalos, the largest organization in Mexico providing scholarships and internship placement to high school and college students as well as teachers. In 2015 alone, Becalos distributed 17,000 scholarships!

The first ever Becalos English Challenge, launching this month, will offer Voxy and other English learning products to students and teachers in Mexico for free, with special incentives for participants to improve their English skills over the next seven months. About 8,000 students are expected to participate in the English Challenge, spread across nine universities from a diverse range of geographical areas—including Acapulco, Mexico City, Merida and Iguala. The goal is to identify the most effective English learning solutions, particularly for students who don’t have easy access to language programs at their schools.

“I am excited to welcome Voxy as part of the Becalos English Challenge,” said Hugo Sancen, Complementary Programs Coordinator at Becalos. “We are proud to partner with a company that’s driving innovation in adaptive learning, fresh content development and increased student engagement. We strive to provide our students and teachers with the best possible resources to help them achieve their educational and professional goals, and Voxy’s approach to English learning is fully aligned with that vision.”

In order to receive a college degree in Mexico, you must fulfill certain English requirements, but not all students have the resources they need to meet the necessary criteria to graduate. Even though the president has advocated raising the level of English proficiency among students country-wide, many public schools struggle to offer English courses to all their students. This often leaves students and teachers in a position to fend for themselves, sometimes with scarce resources to enroll in classes on their own.

Voxy’s blended approach includes self-paced, adaptive lessons tailored to students’ specific goals and live instruction with native English speakers via video-conferencing—an ideal combination for students looking for the flexibility of a self-guided course as well as personalized feedback from trained instructors. Voxy’s solution can be delivered as a fully mobile experience, offers over 30,000 hours of content appropriate for learners of all proficiency levels and leverages patented technology to personalize courses based on the specific English needed to prepare students for their careers.

“We are thrilled to be part of this inspiring initiative,” said Paul Gollash, Voxy Founder and CEO.  “English proficiency is a huge driver of socio-economic advancement globally, and we applaud the efforts that Becalos is making to remove the barriers that prevent tomorrow’s leaders from accessing the high-quality instruction they need and deserve.”

Hugo Sancen, coordinator of complementary projects for Becalos Fundación Televisa; and Maria Hernandez, Becalos scholarship recipient and candidate for NASA program.

Hugo Sancen, Complementary Programs Coordinator at Becalos, and Maria Hernandez, Becalos scholarship recipient and candidate for NASA program.

Featured image from Becalos English Challenge launch event at Instituto Tecnologico Tlahuac 2 in Mexico City. Pictured from left to right: Hugo Sancen, Becalos Fundación Televisa; Laura Rojas, HSBC México; Imelda Vega, de tecnológico nacional de México; Gabriela Rojas, Bécalos Fundación Televisa; Miguel Laporta, HSBC México & Latin America; Manuel Ángel Uribe Vázquez, Instituto Tecnológico Tlahuac 2; Alicia Lebrija, Fundación Televisa; Omar Chaparro; Maria Hernandez; Lagtzu Lopez, HSBC México.

Becalos is a division of Televisa, the largest media company in Mexico. Photos courtesy of Becalos.