Kaitlyn Thompson

Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016

App aimed at Chinese-speaking students wins $50,000 in ASU competition

Tempe – Despite Chang Liu’s numerous years of English lessons in China, she found it extremely difficult to communicate when she arrived at Arizona State University.

“About six months ago, it was my first time to be here in the U.S.,” said Liu, an ASU undergraduate student. “I realized I had spent years learning English, from primary school to college almost every day, but it was totally useless.”

Liu wanted to make learning English easier for other students in China, so she teamed up with two business graduate students, Megan Kirk and Elizabeth Oviedo, to develop a mobile application that allows Chinese students to interact with native English speakers. They called it Let’s Chat.

Let’s Chat was one of three entrepreneurial businesses that pitched their ideas to judges at the Sun Devil Igniter Challenge Spark Tank on Feb. 4, and they beat out the competition to win the $50,000 grand prize.

Spark Tank is an ASU version of the TV show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurial teams pitch their business ideas to a team of judges in the hopes of taking home investment money.

The Let’s Chat team applied to competition to get the money needed to create their application.

Liu arrived at ASU last semester. At the time, she was startled by the lack of ability she had to communicate with those around her.

“I don’t know how to talk to people. I don’t know how to chat with my American classmates. I don’t know how to answer my professors questions,” Liu said. “This is the same problem faced by every English-learning Asian, who spends tons of time learning the grammar and vocabulary from English textbooks and classes, but never really having any chance to use it or practice with native speakers.”

Since her arrival at ASU, Liu has seen a change.

“My English has improved a lot, which makes me realize that the best way to learn a language, to learn a culture, is to communicate with native speakers,” Liu said.

The application team will hire English speakers in what they call an “Uber” style payment system, in which the speakers can work anytime and anywhere they want.

Conversations on the app start at $15 for a one-on-one chat, or the user can split the cost during a group chat. The company takes a 20 percent commission from every conversation that takes place on the application.

The Let’s Chat app does more than just connect native English speakers to Chinese students, it allows them to talk about topics that interest them like the Super Bowl, Star Wars or fashion, Kirk said. The Chinese students can choose whether they want to have their conversation via video, voice or text format.

“Let’s Chat will transform the way people practice English around the word,” Kirk said.

The mobile application allows students to type a word in Mandarin Chinese when they are unsure how to say it in English, and the application translates the word and adds it to a vocabulary list. Conversely, when they come across an English word that’s unfamiliar, they can tap the word on their screen, adding the word to their vocabulary list.

To get Let’s Chat off the ground, the team has partnered with the ASU Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program and the ASU Department of English to offer fall internships to qualified native speakers. The team plans on expanding its efforts to China with the help of ASU’s Global Launch.

“Global Launch is helping us in two primary ways. First, by connecting us to international students abroad, who plan to come to ASU or other American universities to study,” Oviedo said. “And second, by connecting us to their agents in China who help students put together a portfolio to apply to college in the United States.”

The Let’s Chat team will target the eight largest college towns in China and plans on visiting the country.

“If you want a better job, if you want a better education, if you want to go to a better college, English is a necessary skill, and this is why we created Let’s Chat,” Liu said.

The Let’s Chat team plans on spending $40,000 of its its winnings on the development of the application and the remaining $10,000 on completing its marketing strategy in China.

“All three of us have the tenacity and desire to see Let’s Chat through to the finish,” Oviedo said.

Spark Tank, an Arizona State University spinoff of the TV show “Shark Tank,” allowed students to pitch their business ideas to judges in the hopes of receiving a financial backing. The competition received about 100 applications.

During the Feb. 4 event, there were two sets of competitions, the Pakis Social Challenge and the Sun Devil Igniter Challenge.

Three teams competed in the Pakis Social Challenge for a $20,000 prize: Humanity X, a program that detects suicidal messages on social media; 33 Buckets, an initiative to supply poverty communities with clean water; and the winner, the All Walks Project, that works with victims of sexual trafficking.

Three teams pitched for the $50,000 Igniter Challenge grand prize: Dropspot, a mobile application that lets you “drop” pictures in locations for your friends to find; Sential, a device that pumps the heart during a cardiac arrest; and the winners of the Igniter Spark Tank, Let’s Chat, an app that helps Chinese speakers connect with English speakers.

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