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Spanish language acquisition with the use of a smartphone application

Language leaning application screens
Timeline: Jan. 2020 - May 2020
Project Type: Graduate Thesis
Tools: Pencil, Paper, Sketch, Adobe Illustrator, Google Slides


Many people have difficulties when trying to learn a new language or feel that they want to learn a language but can't seem to get an app that makes them feel comfortable enough to speak it.


With a background in Spanish language and literature, I focused on a Spanish language learning mobile application and how a more successful one can be created.

The purpose of this study is to determine how individuals can learn a second language by using a mobile application as opposed to a formal class. 


The study looks at the user’s preferences and whether they believe the application to be helpful or not. 


Background & Significance

The purpose of this study is to determine how individuals can learn a second language by using a mobile application as opposed to a formal class. 


The study looks at the user’s preferences and whether they believe the application to be helpful or not. 

The United States has the fourth-largest Spanish speaking population.
Spanish is the most commonly taught foreign language in the U.S.

*According to the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP)

ACTFL created the Can-Do Statements Proficiency Benchmarks to show what it takes to move to the next level of fluency. 


The benchmarks are broken down into the different levels of fluency and the five different types of communication.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, ACTFL, uses the following chart to show how people gain fluency.  When people say they want to become fluent in a language, they typically want to land somewhere in the “Advanced” portion.

The Communicative Language Teaching Approach has become very common in schools because it states that the sole purpose of learning a language is to communicate and that no one method works for all tasks.  This follows methodological principles and real-life situations.

Preliminary Research

The survey focused on general user demographics and opinions about language learning.  I asked questions on what people wanted to learn, their motivations for learning, current application use, and likes and dislikes of those applications.​


of participants need help staying motivated


of participants enjoyed their previous Spanish classes


of participants want to learn a new language

User Research Survey N=166

Although grammar is a key part of language acquisition, I hypothesized that reading and writing would have the lowest number of votes followed closely by grammar.  I was surprised to see that culture interested 18% of participants while grammar interested 25% of participants.

Participants showed the least interest in reading and writing followed by culture. When I initially gained interest in the Spanish language, a significant portion of that was because of the culture.  Additionally, according to ACTFL, intercultural communication is a key form of communication in becoming fluent in a language.

I chose to compare Duolingo and Busuu because they have contrasting learning styles.

Competitive Analysis


Duolingo is currently the top-performing language learning application.  It offers a gamified experience with bite-sized lessons and incentivizes consistent learning.

The free application allows the user to choose how serious they are about learning with the help of the Duolingo Owl.  The owl occasionally appears to give motivating messages and act as support for the user.


Each lesson is accompanied by icons that give some context for what can be expected from the lesson.


In order to assist the user in vocab retention, the vocab words are shown with an icon that demonstrates the word.

Busuu is a popular language learning application that takes a different approach from Duolingo.  This application aligns closely with in-person teaching principles.


Each lesson gives the user XP points in order to reach a daily goal.  The app tracks user’s streaks and allows them to freeze their streak or win extra gems for longer streaks.   This gamified learning helps the user stay motivated and continue to log on to complete the daily lessons.


To assist in conversational learning, the user is able to converse with the Duolingo Owl.  This conversational AI allows the user to chat without the fear of being wrong or judged.  It also ensures that responses are accurate.


The biggest downfall for Duolingo is the lack of review and flashcards.   When the user wants to study what they have previously learned, they must go back and retake the same lesson. 


Additionally, the lessons become repetitive in nature and can turn into pattern recognition, as opposed to language acquisition.

Busuu allows the user to pick a goal based on what they want to achieve and how often they are willing to spend learning each day.


The two premium options allow the user to decide how serious they are about language acquisition.

The lessons are broken down by how long the lesson will take, the topic and the language focus.


The user starts by selecting the topic and is given 2-4 lessons. The vocabulary lessons begin with learning words, followed by memorization tactics, and finally using the term in conversation.


Upon completion, the user can see how far they have to fluency, how many days they’ve been active, and how many words they have learned. 


A unique feature of Busuu is the ability to talk to real people.  The user has the ability to meet “friends” through the app and converse with them.  It also allows other users to correct written and verbal exercises.


While this is beneficial for the user’s learning, it can create added stress or fear of saying something wrong.  Additionally, there is a chance that the user making corrections is incorrect.


of participants want to learn common phrases and idioms

Both applications include some common phrases but don’t fully meet that criteria due to the lack of intercultural communication.


Neither application allows the user to choose what region’s Spanish they want to learn.  When looking at Spanish as a whole, instead of broken down by dialect and location, the user inherently misses a key part.


There are 20 countries that list Spanish as an official language, meaning there are at least 20 different cultures, if not more.

This is a simplified version of the ACTFL Can-Do Statements Proficiency Benchmarks. The bottom two rows are dedicated to intercultural communication, showing how important it is to the language.  This is often overlooked when thinking of language acquisition. 


Many people think of a language as its grammar and vocabulary.  The concept of intercultural communication makes sense if it is thought about in the user’s native language. 


For example, how the English language is spoken in the United States is a direct correlation to the culture whereas the English spoken in the United Kingdom uses different terms and phrases because of their differing culture.


This is why people feel they can’t speak the language confidently because they know the words and structures but don’t understand the culture behind it.

To learn more about the user’s views of each application and their features I did a features survey.  In order to avoid any bias, from the user recognizing one application or the other, I created wireframe versions of both screens.


This survey tested paid vs. free features, notification options, and application engagement.


of participants want a calendar view


of participants want to see their longest streak


of participants want badges for accomplishments

What keeps users motivated?


of participants want a reminder notification if they haven't been on recently


of participants want a daily lesson notification

Features Survey N=38


Support gamified learning experiences with varying activities and variable rewards.

The participants want the gamified experience and believe it would help them stay motivated to learn.

Therefore, we should provide different gamified lessons.  This is common in in-person classes and would be very easy to integrate.


Support cooperative and collaborative learning.

The participants voiced that despite making progress on the lessons, they still do not feel comfortable speaking the language.

Therefore, we should allow for cooperative and collaborative learning by having varying lesson styles and creating groups of users that can work together. 


Support the user’s language acquisition by allowing them to choose a focus region.

The participants want to learn common phrases and idioms in order to feel more like a native when speaking.


Therefore, we should provide the ability to choose a region to allow the user to learn the language along with its culture for a well-rounded experience.

Support the use of the Communicative Language Teaching Approach.

The participants shared that they have previously had trouble learning Spanish.

Therefore, we should create lesson plans to incorporate different methodologies to allow the user to find a method that works for them.


Design Recommendations 

Currently, there are many language learning applications on the market, however, users often do not feel comfortable in the language upon completion.

The best way to learn a language is to be fully immersed in it and its culture.  This is hard to replicate, even in a formal class setting.


Classrooms have the benefit of accountability whereas apps have the autonomy, if we can successfully combine the two, the user will have a better chance of meeting their goals.


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