Israeli Tech Gateways
Israeli Tech Gateways
Right to left: Eitan Noiman, Dr. Elisabeth Levi, Chanan Kupietzky

Testing 1,2,3: Speak makes language proficiency as easy as A,B,C

Frustrated that his English was not up to par when he entered the high tech world after his IDF service, Eitan Noiman co-founded “Speak”, simplifying English language proficiency testing for all

Company: Speak
Product: AI language proficiency assessments
Raised: $1 million
Round: A
Founded: 2018
Founders: Eitan Noiman, Chanan Kupietzky
Before we even begin our interview, the first thing Eitan Noiman, co-founder and CEO of Speak, an Israeli startup developing an AI-based online test of English proficiency, does is apologize for his accented English.
Noiman’s story, and that of his co-founder Chanan Kupietzky, begins in the IDF’s elite Duvdevan unit, where the pair served together for five years and became close friends. While Kupietzky comes from an American family and speaks English like a native, Noiman doesn’t. So when he entered the high-tech job market after completing his IDF service, Noiman found his level of English to be lacking.
“The startup world was always very interesting to me,” Noiman told CTech in an exclusive interview, “I always knew I wanted to become an entrepreneur and English became very crucial for me to achieve that goal. After serving for five years in the army and becoming an officer, perhaps I had learned to speak Arabic pretty well, but my spoken English certainly had not improved. I can attest that many others like me had a similar experience.”
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Right to left: Eitan Noiman, Dr. Elisabeth Levi, Chanan Kupietzky
(Photo: Speak)
In Noiman’s first post-military high-tech jobs he worked as a product manager in development. “Suddenly everything, all the emails and all the meetings, were in English,” Noiman said. “I think I tried almost every English language learning service available in Israel in order to improve my English - and even today I am still not yet at the C2 proficiency level, which is considered fluent.”
The birth of Speak: From language frustration to a new creation
It was precisely at the height of his frustration in obtaining a higher level of English language proficiency that Noiman realized that he wanted to do something unique within that specific field.
Meanwhile Noiman’s co-founder, fellow soldier, and close friend Chanan Kupietzky had taken a different career path after completing his army service, receiving his MSC from London’s global university, UCL. Due to his upbringing and his post army education and career Kupietzky had a lot of exposure to Israel’s new immigrants, so working in the field of English language interested him as well.
“Our first joint idea was to create something unique in the English learning space,” Noiman explained, “the automatic English teacher. We envisioned it as a robot teacher that could speak with students and teach English in a purely automated way. However, we quickly understood that there is a great technology barrier before you can even get started. Before you can create a robot teacher that can speak with students you need to have some kind of technology that can evaluate and get insight on the level of English proficiency your student has. Before you teach someone, you need to know what sort of vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension the student has, and you need to get that from free speech.
Noiman and Kupetzky determined that from a technology perspective no such English proficiency testing solution really existed in the market. “There was no way that we found, and this was 3-4 years ago,” said Noiman, “to take the authentic speech of someone and to automatically provide a professional evaluation and report about their English abilities, namely what their general level is as well as sub-parameters like vocabulary, grammar, and more.”
Their idea eventually grew into Speak, a Jerusalem-based startup founded in 2018 which employs 25 people. Over the last four years Speak has developed an AI-based English proficiency exam which is able to quickly, effectively, and cost effectively assess a person’s English language abilities. The test itself is a very easy spoken interview done over the computer. “It’s quite simple,” Noiman explains, “you receive a link and then you take a 10 minute test, it might be longer depending on the version, in which you verbally answer a few open-ended questions such as ‘Tell me about yourself’ and ‘What are your hobbies?’ If the test is for a higher level reason, say for a job interview or for educational studies, the questions might be deeper opinion questions, for example, ‘What is your opinion about recycling in your neighborhood?’ or ‘ What is your opinion of the use of smartphones by kids?’ All the person taking the test has to do is speak for 1-2 minutes and answer the questions verbally naturally. As we tell everyone, there is no way to prepare for the test, it’s all natural speaking, unlike say a written or computerized multiple choice or written exam which can be manipulated. At Speak, our advanced AI technology tests your English proficiency based on your natural speech.”
Speak’s technology quickly takes the speech data from the user taking the test, and within a few minutes can give its customers, which can be anything from an HR department interviewing job applicants to an educational institution reviewing student applicants, a professional report regarding their candidate’s English language proficiency.
“Our uniqueness with Speak,” Noiman says, “is that we are able to provide the true English level of the user. While there are many tests out there, including multiple choice question tests, that claim they can evaluate English language proficiency, our solution is the only one I know of that is based solely on testing the user’s true natural, authentic speech and is able to provide a score based on that.”
“In the higher education market, for example, there are traditional English language proficiency exams such as the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language),” Noiman explains. “Chinese students can study for these exams for two years, get a good score, and as a result get accepted to a top university or high-level job requiring English, but they will not be able to speak or understand English at the level required because those tests can be manipulated and do not provide a true reflection of the test-taker’s English proficiency that a natural speech-based test like Speak’s does, and this is a huge problem.”
Although Speak’s co-founders do not come from a linguistic background, Speak’s VP of Language, Research and Assessment Development, Dr. Elisabeth Levi, who holds a Ph.D in Education Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania does. “Dr. Levi did her Ph.D exactly in the field we are working in,” Noiman said. “When she joined us in 2019, it was a perfect match. You can not solve the problem we are trying to tackle solely with technology, there is also the very important element of linguistics. The AI experts and the linguistic experts work together hand in hand. The linguistic experts tell the AI experts what to look for.”
Regarding next steps, Noiman said that Speak’s beta version also includes writing proficiency. “The writing tasks are also simple, such as ‘Please write a 150-word email to a colleague about topics A,B, and C and be sure to mention points 1,2, and 3.’ This allows us to really assess how a person writes in real time.”
Over the last couple of years, the business world has taken notice of Speak with many major companies in Israel and abroad using their tests. Ernst & Young (EY) in Israel has implemented Speak’s test for their job applicants. According to Noiman, several major BPO (business process outsourcing) companies, who outsource their customer service and tech support call center positions to people from India or the Philippines, which can often be difficult to understand due to accent or pronunciation, have moved on from traditional multiple choice type assessment test methods to Speak’s test to ensure their new hires have the required English language speaking proficiency.
“At high-level companies like EY,” Noiman said, “Speak replaces the manager’s personal interview because they have resources for it, but with the BPO market they simply don’t have the time to personally interview each of the 50,000 job candidates the have per year, so they use Speak’s test instead of the traditional language proficiency assessment tests they do, which are not accurate.”
How do you show that Speak’s test is better than traditional methods?
“The answer is complicated,” Noiman said, “We are aiming to be even better than the personal human interviewer because our test is completely unbiased so we can create the standard. Our test notices things that even the human interviewer does not and cannot pick up. Let’s take vocabulary for example, nobody, unless they dedicate 10 hours to interview a candidate, can determine a candidate’s accurate vocabulary level. You simply don’t have the time to grade each word that a candidate speaks and calculate their overall vocabulary score, but a computer can. Our system not only picks out words and scores them, but it also understands slang. This is what is unique about using artificial intelligence technology, at first you seek to just copy the human testing process or interview, but with AI you can take it far beyond that.”
CEFR: The language proficiency gold standard
Noiman stressed that Speak’s language proficiency test is aligned with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which is the European standard of measuring language level. The CEFR provides a six point scale of language proficiency for many different language skills and is widely used throughout the world, including in job vacancy ads where the CEFR level of English required for the position is often listed in the description.
Noiman noted that last year Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) announced the passage of a reform that aims to significantly improve the English-language skills of Israeli college and university students, to better prepare them to succeed in the 21st century labor market. As part of the reform, over the next five years academic institutions will need to set out study methods to ensure students gain the basic skills of English reading, writing, comprehension and speech. The programs will be based on the CEFR.
“When we at Speak give a score to a student applicant or a job candidate, we first grade them according to CEFR,” Noiman said. “It’s six levels from A1, which is the lowest level, all the way up to C2, which is a native speaker. So, if someone’s Speak score comes out to a B2 for example, which is considered as having basic English language fluency, the hiring manager or the university admissions representative can make the decision if they want to accept someone at the B2 level or if it is too low for them.”
“Lots of individuals come to our website just to try our test for free in order to check their language proficiency level before they apply to a university or a job or even before taking the standard proficiency test,” Noiman said. “Did you know that the fee to take the TOEFL or IELTS is $250 per test?! That’s crazy! So it really does pay to check your level with Speak beforehand.”
“We also provide ‘mapping’, which is information we provide for the market as to what level of English is needed for a certain job or position,” said Noiman. “Let’s say you want to be a sales manager or maybe just work in a customer service position, what’s the level of English you need to have. Also we can check what level of English the current employees have.”
Speak: The name says it all
When asked about the name of the company, Speak, Noiman said, “Although we are doing lots of things now, writing and reading assessment, and of course listening, but at the core our test is based on ‘speaking’, and that’s what we are really all about. We want to make sure people know how to speak. We are not just a standardized multiple choice test. Speak tests your speaking ability including your confidence in your speech, which includes vocabulary, pronunciation and so much more.
Does Speak only do language evaluation? Do you help improve spoken English too?
“Language assessment is our core business and it’s a huge market globally. The English language proficiency test market for higher education alone is a $7-8 billion dollar industry worldwide and that does not include testing for the workforce or other English language learning. We found great results in the workforce and higher education markets and also in testing kids K-12.”
“But,” Noiman added, “Speak also runs a center for learning English in Israel. Let’s go back to the very beginnings of the company when we started. You see when using AI, you need data to test, data is everything. Now we didn’t want to have to go outside, like to Berlitz or other English teaching programs, to get audio of non-native students learning and speaking English, so we developed an app that helps students learn English with one-on-one teachers and very quickie we had plenty of data of our own to work with. This activity succeed very well so we keep it going locally in Israel. It gave us a lot of confidence and the ability to do a lot of testing internally.”
“We had a pilot with the Israeli Education Ministry to use our test in place of the standard oral matriculation (bagrut) exam, so we’ll see where that goes,” says Noiman, “we are hopeful.”
Looking towards the future, Noiman is very optimistic, “In the next few years, we see the Speak speech assessment test as becoming the global standard for English language proficiency going forward, becoming the alternative globally for the workforce in place of TOEFL and other traditional testing methods.”
And will Speak be available in other languages?
“We have our hands full with English for now,” Noiman said, “but we are also currently developing a Hebrew version which will come to the market soon. There is a huge demand for Hebrew language proficiency testing for job positions, including government authorities, so we are working on that. Speak’s test is also important for Israel’s minority population, for example to test the Arab-Israeli sector on Hebrew language proficiency or say the ultra-Orthodox population on their English level.”
First published: 11:29, 10.04.22