Google launches Bolo, an Android app for school children in India to improve reading and vocabulary skills in Hindi and English, using speech recognition (Manish Singh/VentureBeat)

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Google, which already dominates India’s smartphone, search, and online video market, today launched a learning app for primary school children in the country as part of an effort to cement its grip on the world’s fastest-growing internet market.

The Android app, called Bolo, aims to help young kids improve their reading comprehension and vocabulary skills in Hindi and English. Bolo (the Hindi word for “speak”), features a range of games and tasks, and it rewards kids as they progress.

Bolo, which is powered by Google’s speech recognition and text-to-speech technology, first asks kids to read sentences. The app then listens to the efforts and reviews them, and an animated voice assistant — called Diya — suggests pronunciation and vocabulary corrections wherever applicable. The app comes preloaded with several stories — Google says 90 stories in Hindi and English are available at launch. Children can engage with the app at a pace they are comfortable with, and their progress can be shared with their parents.

Bolo is optimized to work for Hindi-speaking users and functions even when there is no data connection, Nitin Kashyap, a project manager at Google, said at an event in New Delhi today. The app does not serve ads and collects only “minimal” data — such as what kind of book a kid is reading and where they might be struggling, Kashyap said. He added that the data is not tied to a particular user and that a user does not need to provide even an email address to use the app.

Google is releasing Bolo in India first, with plans to bring it to other countries in the future. The company said it will also add support for more languages soon.

Literacy

Even as literacy levels in India have been growing in recent years, experts have cautioned that the overall quality of education needs improvement. According to a recently released study (PDF), about 50 percent of students in fifth grade can’t fully understand textbooks meant for second grade students. That’s a gap Google, which has invested about Rs 80 crores ($113 million) through Google.org in India’s education market, will be attempting to bridge.

Google said it quietly piloted Bolo with 920 students in 200 villages in India late last year and received “encouraging” feedback. While developing Bolo, it worked closely with four nonprofit partners — ​Pratham Education Foundation,​ ​Room to Read,​ ​Saajha, and the ​Kaivalya Education Foundation. A researcher who worked on the project told VentureBeat that Google started working on Bolo in late 2017.

Google’s newfound interest in entering India’s education market — comprising about 1.5 million schools with 250 million students — comes as education technology firms and startups are seeing tremendous growth and attracting big bucks. Byjus, for instance, raised $540 million in December last year and offers a learning app for students and those preparing to attend college. Microsoft has also made a push on this front. And Facebook this week launched an online education website — called We Think Digital — to help about 1 million people in the Asia-Pacific region think critically and be more thoughtful about things they share online.