Nov 20, 2023

Cricket Commentary To Movie Reviews, This App Makes English More Accessible

Rahul S, an electronics engineering student in Tirunelveli, studied in an English-medium government school and could read English well, but always switched to Tamil when speaking. But not anymore.

“Speaking in English has always been a challenge for me and my friends, but it is important for job interviews and to go to work in other states,” Rahul says in English. “I used to struggle to speak even a sentence in English earlier, but I recently gave a talk on artificial intelligence in class,” says the student, whose father runs an eatery and mother rolls beedis for a living.

Hailing from Thippanampatti village, Rahul is among the many rural students who are as strong as their urban counterparts in core domain skills, but have remained on the sidelines of the job market because of poor English-speaking skills. An AI-powered English tutoring app by a startup called ‘DreamDaa’ and 60 minutes a day of structured engagement have transformed Rahul and several other college students across Salem and Tirunelveli. 

Incubated and mentored by tech entrepreneurs Suresh Sambandam and Shivakumar Sadayapppan (both part of the board of directors) and managed by CEO Kaviya Raj, DreamDaa takes the app to colleges and also sets up an English lab on the premises to include spoken English training as part of the syllabus. Colleges see value in getting students ready for industry and pay for the licence and service.

The lab contains smartphones loaded with the DreamDaa app. The Android-only app contains video tutorials delivered in Tamil, quick tests based on the videos, and a talk-back section for students to practise speaking English. The app, as a digital tutor, speaks to the students, teaches them basics of English in the form of a game. Students progress to higher levels as they clear each stage. There is a coordinator in class to assist the students and regular interactive workshops are also conducted.

“As unfair as it may be, premium jobs typically go to talent in urban areas, as our communication skills are rooted in English. We wanted to correct this uneven playing field,” says Sambandam. ural students don’t even take the first step to learn English because it’s too intimidating for them, he adds.

Currently live in Einstein College, Tirunelveli, and Sri Shanmuga Institutions, Salem, for a few months, the app is used by more than 1,500 students. The startup’s goal is to get to 10,000 students in the next one year across small towns of TN.

Interestingly, the students learn only at the designated time in the classrooms and do not have access to the app on their phones. “The idea is to learn spoken English as they would learn core subjects and make it part of the curriculum,” says Sambandam. While DreamDaa’s hybrid model is investment heavy and may be slower to gain critical mass, Sambandam says it is the best one to see real change. “The online-only model requires a lot of self-motivation that students typically lack; more so for learning English,” he says.

In a world where a smartphone, good internet connectivity and sound English communication skills can change lives, DreamDaa wants to ensure inclusive talent growth in Tamil Nadu. “From shying away from speaking in English, the students are today delivering unscripted cricket commentary and reviews of the movie ‘Leo’ as part of their workshops. We can see a clear change in their confidence to try speaking in English,” says Kaviya Raj.

DreamDaa has also been pitched to the state’s Naan Mudhalvan programme. While its hybrid model makes it unaffordable for the government, state officials are said to be experimenting with the app to see how they can adopt it. 

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