A Chinese Entrepreneur Builds a Bridge to the U.S. Through Language

Written

A Chinese Entrepreneur Builds a Bridge to the U.S. Through Language

How a speech-recognition app is using big data and AI to foster a bilingual culture.
A man talks on a mobile phone as he walks past the view of the Shanghai skyline.
Liulishuo Information Technology Co. uses artificial intelligence, gamification, and social networks in an attempt to redefine language learning. | Reuters/Carlos Barria

When Yi Wang returned to his homeland of China from the U.S. in 2011, he soon found a way to marry the cultures of the two countries in a business startup. With a classmate and a friend, both of whom worked for high-tech Silicon Valley firms, he cofounded a company that helps people learn English through a speech-recognition app that encourages community and competition among its users.

Yi Wang | Eric Michael Johnson

Shanghai-based Liulishuo Information Technology Co. launched its English-language learning app, called English Liulishuo (or “Speak English Fluently”) in 2013. It now has 30 million registered users.

Wang first came to the U.S. to earn a PhD in computer science at Princeton University. After graduating in 2009, he joined Google as a product manager in charge of the infrastructure construction of the cloud computing network. He also worked on Google Analytics, helping to design some of the product’s key features such as its dashboards, widgets, and internal customer service system. He attended Stanford Ignite — Beijing in 2014.

More than 177 million Chinese people will travel abroad this year, Wang says, and he wants every one of them to be able to speak flawless English.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Redefine language learning through technology and gamification.

How do you gamify language?

When you sign on to our service, you can choose from more than 10 categories, such as travel, business, or daily conversation, and then you select a specific topic — a “course.” Each course is a series of short dialogues chained together into a series of games. You study each dialogue by reading and role-playing and getting a score from an automated speech-evaluation engine. After you complete your first level, you unlock the next, similar to Angry Birds. We have over 700 courses. There are leaderboards for every course and every level, and you earn stars for your practices and accomplishments.

How does technology come into play?

In China you have one standard — get the best grades and you will have a successful life. But in the U.S., everyone seems authentic to themselves
Yi Wang

My cofounder Hui Lin, who was my classmate at Tsinghua, was a research scientist at Google doing speech recognition and data mining. Together we built an AI-based speech recognition and evaluation engine. Any kind of AI technology is hopeless without abundant data. If you have a rice cooker but no rice, you can’t make a good meal. We have the world’s largest speech database — more than 5 million hours — of Chinese speakers. As people practice and take quizzes, we keep all of those recordings. We crunch the data extensively. As far as we know, we have built the world’s first adaptive engine for learning that is built on top of deep learning technology and with a fully interactive multilevel course on mobile.

You were born in China, and then studied and worked in the U.S. before returning to China. How does that dual exposure help you with your business?

My U.S. learning and working experience taught me the power of advanced technologies, such as the artificial intelligence technologies we use, and how to build great products. But you need to understand Chinese customers to give them what they want. People in China want an authentic user experience that is made by Chinese people for Chinese people. We wanted the product to be top notch and authentic to the English language, yet optimized for the local Chinese user. When we choose the topics for people to talk about, we look for things that young Chinese learners are most interested in, like American TV shows. We also added a bulletin board service, which is central to social networks in China. People want to interact with each other and follow people who are interesting — not because they look nice or are pretty, but because they share a common interest and want to speak English together.

Where do you feel more at home — the U.S. or China?

I feel at home in China and I feel at home in the U.S. I am open and flexible and curious about where people come from and the viewpoints they hold. My wife and I drove across the U.S. three times. We have been to over 30 states and over 30 national parks.

You’ve seen more of America than most Americans. What did you learn about American culture?

We saw the true America. The American people treasure diversity. I value this very much. In China you have one standard — get the best grades and you will have a successful life. But in the U.S., everyone seems authentic to themselves. I bring that to my company. I tell every member of my team, “You are unique. You have a gift. Our job is to help you find that and realize your full potential.”

How unusual is it for them to hear those kinds of things?

I can tell this is the first time they have heard this.

Can you share a story about one of your employees where this was impactful?

A girl named Erica came in 2014 when the company was one year old and had only 20 employees. She visited as an enthusiastic user and came to talk to me. She said, “I quit my job a month ago just to prepare for this visit. I really like this product. I have no experience. Do you think you can offer me any position?” She was one year out of college from a school I’d never heard of. If her resume had come in, I wouldn’t have interviewed her.

We have a “hello” email where we interact with users. I said, “Maybe you can handle that.” Tears fell down her face. The next day she was in the office. She became someone who knows our users the best. She now leads a team of 20 people. She was a normal girl growing up, never a superstar. In China people overvalue being smart. She did not think she was smart enough. Now she shows the confidence on her face.

How did you bring that out?

I told her an English phrase when she first came: “Try your best and knock the ball out of the park.” And I told her, “You can grow your own path from there. Your reputation is not given by the CEO — you earn that.” That is a very American view.

What is your biggest challenge right now in building your business?

We have built a product people like, and we have found a way to monetize on our premium product. Since we started monetization in April, our revenue growth has been 30% month over month. But now we have to find ways to scale that, and keep making more innovative and attractive learning products, both of which require a strong team. My challenge is to build a great team with more of those Ericas so I can think more strategically about the future for the company. We are going to set up an office in Silicon Valley to attract talent, especially top AI researchers and engineers.

What was your first paying job?

An internship at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing. I saw some of the most brilliant people: professors and researchers in computer science and engineering. I saw how they work and how they communicate. Then I realized I can understand them and they can understand me — I can be one of them. It was the first time I was in a multicultural environment. People respected each other. They freely expressed their different opinions and had healthy, constructive discussio ns.

What is the best business book you’ve read?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. After reading that book, I said, “That’s how a real startup is.” People never write about that in flashy articles — the ups and downs.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

Our mission is to help everyone become a global citizen. In early June I went to the highlands of Qinghai province to visit a rural area with a Tibetan orphan school. They have 300 children. Their English teacher is a user of ours. We decided to do a project with Meizu, a Chinese smartphone manufacturer. They donated 100 smartphones and we made our premium course free for all of the teachers there and their students. I asked how many had been outside the town and only one-third raised their hands. Now they can talk to foreign faces over video and have a conversation in English and learn about the outside world.

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