New language learning app Kleo aims to imitate a human tutor

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Growing up in Palisades Park, Michiyo Kawasaki watched as her father, Osamu, who immigrated to America from Japan in his twenties, struggled to communicate. He only knew a few words of English when he arrived in the United States and taught himself the language with the help of his mother.

Osamu Kawasaki, who died in 2003, opened one of the first sushi restaurants in Bergen County, Tenafly, and was a founding member of the Japanese American Association’s Niko Niko baseball team.

He was a college graduate and a successful business owner. But he never mastered the nuances of English or lost his Japanese accent, and his daughter saw how people treated him differently because of the sound of his speech.

This experience inspired her to create a conversation-focused language learning app to help people learn to speak a foreign language like a native speaker.

“He always struggled and as a child I watched the impact it had on him,” said Michiyo Kawasaki, 44. “I understood how language can be bonding if you’re able to play, but can also be marginalizing if you’re in a way that people perceive as acceptable.

After spending his career in investment banking and finance, Kawasaki, who moved to Kentucky with his family, has worked for the past two years developing Kleo, a language app designed to mimic feedback and modeling. that a student would get by working with a tutor.

The app has undergone preliminary testing on Android devices and was recently launched for the iPhone. Unlike an image or text-based approach, Kleo aims to get people talking by immersing the user in the dialogue. Users interact with videos of people talking from their homes, or in a market or restaurant in Italy, Spain or Germany. Its developers are working to extend the offers to French and Japanese.

Language apps have grown in popularity, promising to teach users to read, write or speak a new language, all from their phones. In 2020, with many people staying home due to the COVID pandemic, over 30 million people downloaded Duolingo, the most popular language app. Now more than ten years old, the application has 500 million users worldwide.

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But while users can learn the basics of apps, it’s hard to replace the benefits of speaking and learning from another human being, said Simon Zuberek, an educational technologist at Columbia University’s Language Resource Center. .

Many apps available are based on educational approaches that were in vogue a quarter century ago, he said. Since then, the field has evolved – it’s less focused on grammar and more informed by cultural understanding and pragmatics, or the natural language used in communication. These approaches are very difficult to imitate through software, Zuberek said.

“Most of the apps are helpful when it comes to vocabulary or reading comprehension, but at this point, at least, they can’t go any further,” he said. “If you want to be fully conversant and functional in a language and culture, you should probably consider some sort of training with another human being.”

Michiyo Kawasaki with her father Osamu.

With Kleo, Kawasaki is trying to address some of these drawbacks by focusing on conversation-based learning.

The experience gives people a non-judgmental space to practice speaking a language they may not feel completely comfortable with.

“It was really born out of the idea of ​​capturing that learning feeling in person,” Kawasaki said. “I hope people get excited about the opportunity to practice speaking and build that muscle memory to become more confident.”

Scott Baines-Jordan, one of the app’s early adopters, said that over the years he’s used many language apps to expand his Japanese, Spanish and German skills. Kleo doesn’t focus on rote learning or imitating a classroom, but it provides a sense of one-on-one instruction to help users practice speaking, he said. .

“I think the hardest part about learning a language is that you can feel like you can read it in a book or look at a menu, but finding a sentence on the fly is the problem,” he said. “It gets you talking and makes you feel comfortable.”

Megan Burrow is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MegBurrow

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