Evaluating the Use of a Smartphone Application for English Speakers to Learn Spanish



One day, while visiting my family, I was talking to my 5-year-old nephew and he began to count in Spanish.  He got to five then started laughing and quickly got distracted by something else, as many 5-year-old’s do.  This made me think about how easy children are able to learn a language and the number of resources available to them. 

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 the language.

From here I chose to focus 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


According to the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP), the United States has the fourth-largest Spanish speaking population.  Additionally, Spanish is the most commonly taught foreign language in the U.S.

With the rise of the internet and technology, it has become easier than ever for people to find resources to assist with learning a language.  There are many applications currently on the app store to help these people learn a new language.  Many of these apps have Spanish as an option among numerous other languages. 

In 2017, I completed a Spanish Teaching Methods course at CU Boulder.  For this project, I have gone back to the resources from that class to see what I can take from that course and pull into this project. 

Preliminary Research

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.


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.

ACTFL Benchmarks

User Research Survey N=166

The survey focused on general user demographics and opinions about language learning.  I asked questions about 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


Two key parts of language acquisition are grammar and culture.  In U.S. schools, students typically learn the Spanish Standard, this is oftentimes more formal than the language that is spoken and aligns closer with how Spanish is spoken in Spain.  Similar to the English language, the Spanish language is slightly different depending on where you are. 


Spain uses a different conjugation for formal “you” plural and informal “you” plural.  The formal version, vosostros, is not used in Mexico.  There are also various terms or phrases that have different meanings depending on location.

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.  Intercultural communication is a key form of communication in becoming fluent in a language.

What people want to learn


Competitive Analysis


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


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

Duolingo Example Screens

The free application allows the user to choose a 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.

Duolingo Gamification Screens

Each lesson gives the user XP points in order to reach a daily goal.  The gamified learning helps the user stay motivated


The app tracks user’s streaks and allows them to freeze their streak or win extra gems for longer streaks.   This 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 have conversations with the Duolingo Owl.  This conversational AI allows the user to chat without the fear of being wrong or judged.  It also ensures that what is being said is 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 is a popular language learning application that takes a different approach from Duolingo.  This application aligns closely with in class teaching principles

Busuu Onboarding Screens

Busuu allows the user to pick a goal based on what they wanted to achieve and how often they were willing to spend learning.


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

Busuu Lesson Screens

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 lesson pictured begins 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 to 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.

Competitive Analysis comparison


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. 

ACTFL Intercultural Benchmarks

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 what it takes to learn a language. 


Many people think of a language as it’s 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.

Features Survey N=38


What keeps users motivated?


of participants want to a calendar view


of participants want to see their longest streak


of participants want badges for accomplishments


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


of participants want a daily lesson notification

Design Recommendations



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.


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 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 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.



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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