Jodi Tommerdahl

How the UT Arlington prof is trying to parlay a childhood love into a mobile app that helps people learn languages or regain their ability to speak after a stroke.

Jodi Tommerdahl says she’s always been interested in languages. It started with Norwegian as a child when her grandmother would teach her bits. When she was 12, Tommerdahl, who grew up in Minnesota, began attending summer Norwegian camps in the state. When she was in her 20s, Tommerdahl learned French.

“I have a huge American accent because I learned it in my ‘20s,” she says. In the back of her mind for years: “Why is there no computer game or software that would show me the difference between these two sounds” – the correct and incorrect pronunciations?

“There’s language learning products, but there’s nothing for your accent, nothing with feedback,” Tommerdahl says.

Tommerdahl, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, lived in Europe for 18 years in Norway, France and England. She earned her master’s degree from the University of London and Ph.D. in neurolinguistics from the Sorbonne in Paris. She was a professor at the University of Birmingham in England when she learned the University of Texas at Arlington was searching for a professor in mind, brain and education for a new program in the College of Education.

Once at UTA, Tommerdahl – associate professor of neurolinguistics - was introduced to an associate professor of electrical engineering, Samir Iqbal. The two, with Motasim Bellah, a Ph.D. in Samir’s lab and an app developer, have teamed up on a mobile app that people learning languages or stroke patients learning to speak again can use to perfect their speech. Using the app, still in development, users repeat words until a dot on the screen moves into the center, verifying correct pronunciation. The team has collected “hundreds of thousands” of language samples that it’s using to build the app, Tommerdahl says.

“We’re swimming in data,” Tommerdahl says. “It’s not just about building the app. It’s about building the science behind the app.”

The company, VisioSound, has joined the Tech Fort Worth incubator and thinks it can bring the app, called the Visual Accent Trainer, to market in six months. “There’s a big push now on the technical side,” Tommerdahl says. “What we’re doing with the app is we’re going back to how babies learn language. The babble. They’re listening to themselves, and they’re setting up this feedback loop.”

The company is talking to language learning companies about potential licensing deals. “Whether it’s available straight from us (in the app store) or from a third party remains to be seen,” Tommerdahl says.

Even if the company licenses its technology, it would likely retain rights for medical applications, Tommerdahl says.

UTA has been backing the group, paying for its patent application, patent attorneys, and university attorneys. Engineering students have been volunteering for the project, Tommerdahl says. The university owns the intellectual property, but VisioSound recently signed an option to lease it back for a fee.

The partners think there’s a huge potential market. “There are literally billions of people studying foreign language,” Tommerdahl says. “It’s just tinder waiting to be lit.”