Minneapolis tech company’s app optimizes foreign language learning, teaching

Kenneth Palmer

Even though Extempore is an app developed for foreign language learners and educators, its creators can quantify its importance with just some simple math.

“Teachers have three classes of 30 students each,” said Carlos Seoane, chief executive of Extempore operator Deeloh Technologies. “That’s 90 students [they’re] teaching to. You have to speak with them for five minutes each or have a speaking exam that takes five minutes.

“That’s 450 minutes. That’s, like, six hours.”

It’s actually 7 ½ hours. Without Extempore, that is.

Seoane and his collaborators started the app as a way to cut down on this immense listening and grading time. Language teachers can assign speaking exercises within the app, and students then record and upload their voices.

Teachers replay the recordings at double speed and on demand, alleviating the need to cram grading into school hours. Students can also return written assignments in the app.

The app also has a bonus benefit of allowing students to record in a less anxiety-inducing atmosphere, like in front of the whole class.

“And with students not in front of teacher, or their peers, they speak more confidently,” Seoane said.

After seeing a steady increase of users of the platform — which is available on all devices — Minneapolis-based Deeloh Technologies is eyeing expansion. Part of that is physical into the Southern Hemisphere. Another is more technological, raising capital to develop artificial intelligence that would build analytics around the millions of recordings stored on the internet-based platform.

College professors and language specialists, as well as officials at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) laud the application, which students and academics at institutions such as the University of St. Thomas, Temple University and the University of Montevideo in Uruguay have all used.

Since 2020, the Minnesota Department of Education has used Extempore to administer ACTFL tests for proficiency in several languages, including Amharic, Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese, Dakota and Ojibwe. If successful, the students receive department-issued bilingual and multilingual achievement seals, which recognizes a student’s proficiency in languages other than English. Minnesota colleges and universities also award college credit when the test is between the sophomore and senior years of high school.

The state established the seals program in 2014, but assessments for students whose native language was Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese, Ojibwe and other languages commonly spoken in Minnesota did not exist. To create a more equitable assessment system, the state department, in collaboration with a few school districts, developed more language tests by the 2017-2018 school year, said Ayumi Stockman, a world language education specialist at the Education Department.

Paper-based assessments and educators listening to each student give oral responses at school, however, became time consuming. Technology like Extempore has expedited the process, Stockman said.

“That helped expand the program and increase accessibility to more students across the state,” Stockman said. It’s also played a significant role in “celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity” in Minnesota, she added.

“There’s no other way for them to take the test,” Seoane said. “If you learn advanced placement Spanish, there’s a ton of off-the-shelf commercial tests. There were no Somali or Hmong tests out there.”

Deeloh Technologies has similar contracts with state education departments in Hawaii and Washington, along with multiple school districts across the U.S. The company will onboard three more state education departments sometime this year.

While small, Deeloh Technologies also has an ongoing partnership with the U.S. government’s Foreign Service Institute, which offers diplomatic training to U.S. government foreign affairs professionals. Those professionals have used Extempore the last three years to obtain their required intensive-language proficiency, Seoane said.

Deeloh Technologies has raised about $2 million from investors since its founding, and Seoane will raise another $1.5 million this year to expand into Australia and develop the app. He declined to disclose the company’s finances.

By expanding into Australia, Deeloh Technologies would boost revenue by adding a second selling season, Seoane said. The company operates in a seasonal education industry, with most of its sales secured in the summer months. Australia, given its location in the Southern Hemisphere, offers the chance to sell the software in winter months.

Educators in Australia are also seeing rising demand to teach English, mostly to people immigrating from Asian countries, Seoane said.

“Everybody that’s teaching English, it doesn’t matter where you are, they have the problem we address. … Speaking practice, assessment, all that stuff,” he said.

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