Thesis Proposal

Reimagine the studying experience for Mandarin-speaking ESL (English as a Second Language) adult learners by providing an engaging means of practicing suprasegmentals, such as stress and intonation, outside the classroom, thereby encouraging students to interact more in real world situations

Thesis Advisors

Chang Sik Kim, Julio Martinez, Scott Phillabaum


web application, thesis


Fall 2015


Chinese adult learners often struggle with pronunciation since their native language is a tonal language—the meaning of words depends on the pitch—whereas English uses intonation to describe emotion and attitude. Often times, they are unable to find people to practice English with because of location, emotional and psychological factors, and/or work circumstances.

Moreover, while there are many language learning applications available, very few provide meaningful feedback and do not extensively breakdown suprasegmentals.


Adult ESL learners who are in beginning ESL, whose native language is Chinese Mandarin, and are unable to find people to practice English with.



  • ESL students
  • ESL teachers
  • adult schools 
  • non-profit organizations 
  • community college
  • ESL tutors 
  • ESL volunteers


Defining terminology

Who are Adult ESL learners?
Adult language learners vary by age, ethnicity, educational background, literacy skills, occupation, and educational attainment, and are often categorized as immigrants, refugees, and migrant workers (Celce-Murcia 569).
Non-native English speaking male worker who has developed English speaking fluency may expect
14–28% more income


  • cognitive maturity
  • easily grasp literacy, vocabulary, pragmatics, schematic knowledge, and syntax
  • influence of their native language, resulting in a foreign accent
  • weakened brain plasticity, resulting in difficulty to acquire nativelike pronunciation
What are suprasegmentals?
The English sound system is divided into two categories: segmental and suprasegmental features. Suprasegmentals are global aspects in speech that extend over segmentals (individual sounds) and controls the structure of information (Avery 185). Many linguists believe understanding and conveying the intended attitude in English is only possible if language learners have an understanding of suprasegmentals (185).
How to encourage language learning?
“Many researchers believe that [a second language, or L2,] learning and teaching environment must include opportunities for learners to engage meaningful interaction with competent speakers of the target language” (Kumaravadivelu 101).
What’s the difference between English and Mandarin?
English uses pitch to convey emotion, whereas Mandarin uses pitch to determine the meaning of words. English has varying syllable lengths, some long and some short. This is different from Mandarin, which “generally consists of one syllable per word” (Avery 118). There are some sounds in English that do not exist in Mandarin (see the IPA charts for comparison).
IPA Chart Comparison between english and Mandarin

User Survey

I surveyed 28 ESL adult students to gain their perspective of what their learning experience is like. 

I discovered that ESL students, regardless of where they come from, are learning English to find better opportunities, and to communicate on a daily basis with others. They struggle with pronunciation. They want to learn life skills, and preferably study within a group. The top three resources they use are books, Internet and web applications, and videos.

Solution: Introducing learnEN, a website application that assists adult language learners in practicing suprasegmentals individually or with other learners.

Information Architecture

User Flow

Competitive UI Analysis


In my initial iteration, screens that display the charts showed rhythm. I removed rhythm in the final UI because there was feedback from user testing that stated there was too much information displayed at once, and the UI was overwhelming to read.



Meet the Mascot

Meet Po: an alien from outer space that has crash landed in a foreign country called the United States of America, which is located in an exotic planet called Earth. Thankfully, Po has a natural ability to acquire any language, be it English or Mandarin. As a result, Po loves to interact with the strange creatures that roam planet Earth called humans.

Whenever the user “interacts” with Po—either through a lesson and doing exercises or chatting with a teammate—Po will have enough energy to venture around the world.

LearnEN features include

  • individual lessons that contain video dialogs centered around real life scenarios, and exercises that target suprasegmental patterns
  • team lessons that pair learners together to practice listening and speaking
  • Po, the mascot, providing meaningful feedback in both individual and team lessons
  • “Chat” section which allows the user to say or type a sentence, see its suprasegmentals breakdown, and practice saying the sentence aloud
  • flashcards to study vocabulary
learnEN is an opportunity to invest in a revolutionary application that re-imagines the experience of practicing English by yourself or with others at the comfort of one’s home. This application offers a way to visualize suprasegmentals, and provides meaningful feedback that are not delivered in other competing language learning applications.

learnEN features exciting, bright visuals with a friendly mascot to invite ESL learners to practice English and to help them feel comfortable. The suprasegmental charts are intuitive so any ESL learner, regardless of what level they are at, can read them. Po the mascot is crucial in the experience because Po provides meaningful feedback to users.

Next Steps

  • branch out to adult learners of other languages
  • create virtual awards (e.g. badges) for milestones they reach to provide positive reinforcement and let them know they are meeting their goals
  • provide a section where learners can visually see their progress via charts and reports, so they know they are reaching their goals
  • Add images and notes to flashcards to increase retention and establish connection to personal experiences

Check out learnEN prototype!

Experience learnEN