The digital language learning space is busy with products for expectant travelers and aspiring bilinguists. But what would a program look like if it were designed for a very different group of learners – for immigrants already living in the US and struggling with limited English?
Prabhas Pokharel, Maya Sussman, Natasha Malpani
Design research, UX design
There are 23 million adults living in the US with limited English proficiency. The impact of limited English is profound – from a person’s sense of self-worth and belonging to their long-term employment opportunities. As a result, many find themselves unable to reach the opportunities that they came to the US to find:
"We think the world of this country. But after coming here you feel like you can’t do anything, you don’t know anything. You feel blank, dumb, like a zero.”
- MBA graduate, working as a clerk
Many assume their English will improve “on its own” in the US. Our interviews with immigrants who have lived in the US for a decade or more revealed that, left alone, language acquisition stagnates rather than accelerates:
"I've been in the US for ten years and the only language I've learned is Hindi"
- Salon owner, who feels her business has suffered because of her English
State-of-the-art solutions are ineffective. English as a second language (ESL) classes are largely inaccessible, serving only 4% of the population in need. Not only that, but neither ESL nor popular language learning apps teach the kind of conversational language needed for everyday interactions.
Practice makes perfect, but it’s easier said than done. Despite working in the service industry, the majority of adults we spoke to were too afraid or embarrassed by their English to practice speaking at work. Not only that, but many intermediate speakers chronically underestimated their abilities; after an hour long conversation in English, one woman we spoke to rated her proficiency as "only 5%."
KEY DESIGN QUESTIONS
HMW increase intermediate speakers' confidence to practice the English they already know?
HMW transform dead-end service jobs into a crash course in English conversation?
We developed a mobile coaching platform to help learners use everyday interactions with English speakers as effective speaking practice. Built around the principals of guided mastery and the power of small wins, Practica builds learners' confidence by guiding them from low-risk listening activities to real-world speaking challenges. Activities are delivered each day by a personal language coach who provides the support, motivation, and expert feedback to help learners take valuable risks.
We were amazed by the enthusiastic response from our learners. During our 5 week pilot program, we saw a 75% daily engagement rate from learners, as well as increases in the frequency and length of learners' English conversations:
"This experience is incredible. After I started the program I lost the shy to speak. Words come more easily in my head."
- Practica user
We developed Practica over months of low-resolution prototyping, English lessons in learners' living rooms, and multiple test programs run over SMS. We worked primarily with immigrants from Nepal, India, and South America, whose first languages the team could support. We also partnered with employers and educators to test and refine early concepts: