When you get inside the cab of Saurabh Mitra, 47, he welcomes you with his impeccable English, with just a hint of Bengali. A partner-driver with one of the cab-hailing apps in Bangalore, Mitra started learning English using one of the apps his son introduced him to.
“At home, I would often tell funny stories about my struggle while talking to foreigners in English. And my son had heard enough such stories; one thing led to another and he enrolled me with an English learning app,” Mitra said. He confessed he doesn’t remember the name of the app.
Mitra is one of the many people who use the online platform to learn English in India. There are more than a handful of English learning tech-startups such as LingosMio, Multibhashi, English Helper, Kings Learning, etc.
These language teaching startups are targeting companies in sectors such as healthcare, e-commerce, hospitality including cab-hailing companies. According to people in the industry The Passage talked to, companies are ready to spend money to let their blue-collar employees learn English. In India, the socio-economic status is often judged by a person's fluency and knowledge of English, and for millions, the ability to communicate in English means they have a better chance of employability.
According to a report by KPMG the online learning market in India, is set to grow at 42% by 2021, making it a USD 29 million industry. “Adoption in the online language learning space is primarily driven by English learners,” the report said.
Enthused by the growth marker, Delhi based English Helper, a nine-year old company that primarily works with school students in 27 states, has started teaching English to professionals doing blue-collar jobs. It launched its new product EnglishBolo (Speak English) a year ago.
“He claims the technology and the content behind English Helper’s tool is backed by “sophisticated AI integration in the back-end and a simple interface for users.”
English Helper has till now raised USD 4 million from unnamed investors.
A China-based English teaching company Lingo Champ is planning to enter India and has already started to scout the market. According to a source who's aware of the information and who's exploring the Indian language learning market said, “We don’t want to lose out on the vast market that India offers.” Lingo Champ will launch its product, much like English Helper.
The untapped rural market
Apart from catering to corporates in metro cities, English Helper is present in 350 Indian districts, making Tier III and IV cities one of its biggest market. It has partnered with 12,000 schools and provides its tech-product to them. “If you are from a rural area you can hardly find a good teacher. With the help of our technology, we are solving this problem. Now we have students from Aurangabad, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, etc. learning English right from their smartphones and desktops,” Gupta said.
People learning English through English Helper platform in Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu. (Photo: English Helper)
It also works with local government bodies to push its English learning product ready to be integrated with the school’s learning material. Gupta claimed its product is used by 2.5 million students in Tier II to IV cities.
A Jaipur-based startup Multibhashi teaches English as well as other Indian languages through its app. The company teaches English from 10 local languages including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Oriya. It claims to add 20 more languages by end of this year. “We target first time English learners in small towns and villages. With easier access to the internet and smart phones in rural India, this is the right time to target these next million users,” said Anuradha Agarwal, founder of Multibhashi.
When Reliance launched Jio in September 2016, it brought down internet charges dramatically ensuring it has users in the remotest of Indian villages. It revolutionised the market further when it launched its feature phone for as low as Rs. 1,500.
Kings Learning that operates Enguru, a mobile-based English learning app received 120,000 downloads in the first 24 hours of its app’s launch on Jio Phone. The company managed to attract USD 2.5 million last year from Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
In 2017, Multibhashi raised an undisclosed amount in Seed funding round from angel investor Aniruddha Malpani and Startup Oasis, a joint initiative of Rajasthan government and IIM Ahmedabad.
Pricing a big factor
The KPMG report cited earlier said, “Monetisation through paid subscriptions in the online language and casual learning space is anticipated to remain low, with ad-based revenues forming the major share shares of revenues.”
A Bangalore-based startup English Dost that catered to small towns and rural areas, had to shut shop after operating for three-years. People in the know said the company could not convince its users to pay for their product.
Gupta believes the Indian market is hard when it comes to generating money from users. “It’s hard to get paid customers in the Indian market. Even the likes of Byju’s have to spend huge marketing expense to get paid subscribers,” he said. English Helper charges Rs.300 a month that includes 40 self-lessons and 10 teachers assisted lessons. It claims to have 40,000 paid subscribers. Almost all startups offer a freemium model to its users so they have the freedom to take free classes as well.
“What we do is not just give them self-paced learning content, we also help them connect to a virtual teacher with whom they can get on a call or a video call and learn English so that we reach even the rural interiors,” said Agarwal from Multibhashi. “All this is very affordable for a 15-minute track we charge as low as Rs 18. So, otherwise, our content, self-paced module is completely free of cost,” she said.
(Avanish Tiwary is a Bangalore-based reporter and Rashi Varshney is a Delhi-based tech reporter. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. ** **Meeta Ramnani has contributed to this article.)
Featured image credit: Sujith Sukumar/The Passage