Photograph by Eric Michael Johnson
When Yi Wang returned to his homeland
of China from the U.S. in 2011, he soon
found a way to marry the cultures of the
t wo countries in a business startup. With
a classmate and a friend, both of whom
worked for high tech Silicon Valley firms,
he cofounded a company that helps people
learn English through a speech-recognition
app that encourages community and
competition among its users.
Shanghai-based Liulishuo Information
Technology Co. launched its English-language learning app, called English
Liulishuo (or “Speak English Fluently”) in
2013. It now has 30 million registered users.
Wang first came to the U.S. to earn
a PhD in computer science at Princeton
University. After graduating in 2009, he
joined Google as a product manager in
charge of the infrastructure construction
of the cloud computing net work. He also
worked on Google Analytics, helping to
build some of the product’s key features,
such as its dashboard, widgets, and internal
customer service system. He attended
Stanford Ignite-Beijing in 2014.
More than 177 million Chinese people
will travel abroad this year, Wang says, and
he wants every one of them to be able to
speak flawless English.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big
idea behind your business? Redefine
language learning through technology and
How do you gamify language? When you
sign on to our service, you can choose from
more than 10 categories, such as travel,
business, or daily conversation, and then
you select a specific topic — a “course.”
Each course is a series of short dialogues
chained together into a series of games.
You study each dialogue by reading and
role playing and getting a score from an
automated speech-evaluation engine. After
you complete your first level, you unlock the
next, similar to Angry Birds. We have over
How does technology come into play? My
cofounder Hui Lin, who was my classmate
at Tsinghua, was a research scientist at
Google doing speech recognition and data
mining. Together we built an AI-based
speech recognition and evaluation engine.
Any kind of AI technology is hopeless
without abundant data. If you have a rice
cooker but no rice, you can’t make a good
meal. We have the world’s largest speech
database — more than 5 million hours —
of Chinese speakers. As people practice
and take quizzes, we keep all of those
recordings. We crunch the data extensively.
As far as we know, we have built the world’s
first adaptive engine for learning that is
built on top of deep learning technology
and with a fully interactive multilevel
course on mobile.
You were born in China, and then studied
and worked in the U.S. before returning
to China. How does that dual exposure
help you with your business? My U. S.
learning and working experience taught
me the power of advanced technologies and
how to build great products. But you need to
understand Chinese customers to give them
what they want. People in China want an
authentic user experience that is made by
Chinese people for Chinese people.
We wanted the product to be top notch
and authentic to the English language, yet
optimized for the local Chinese user.
When we choose the topics for people to
talk about, we look for things that young
Chinese learners are most interested in,
like American TV shows. We also added
a bulletin board service, which is central
to social networks in China. People want to
interact with each other and follow people
who are interesting — not because they
look nice or are pretty, but because they
share a common interest and want to speak
Where do you feel more at home — the
U.S. or China? I feel at home in China and
I feel at home in the U.S. I am open and
flexible and curious about where people
come from and the viewpoints they hold.
My wife and I drove across the U.S. three
times. We have been to over 30 states
and over 30 national parks.
You’ve seen more of America than most
Americans. What did you learn about
American culture? We saw the true
America. The American people treasure
diversity. I value this very much. In China
you have one standard — get the best
grades and you will have a successful life.
But in the U.S., everyone seems authentic
to themselves. I bring that to my company.
I tell every member of my team, “You
are unique. You have a gift. Our job is to
help you find that and realize your full
How unusual is it for them to hear those
kinds of things? I can tell this is the first
time they have heard this.
Can you share a story about one of your
employees where this was impactful?
A girl named Erica came in 2014 when the
company was one year old and had only
20 employees. She visited as an enthusiastic
user and came to talk to me. She said,
“I quit my job a month ago just to prepare
for this visit. I really like this product. I have
no experience. Do you think you can offer
me any position?” She was one year out
of college from a school I’d never heard of.
Yi Wang attended the Stanford
Ignite-Beijing program in 2014.
American View to
a Chinese Startup
An entrepreneur uses big data
and AI to gamify the learning of English.
BY ERIKA BROWN EKIEL