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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.