MSI profile: The Xpress team

UMSI students’ app connects language learners and native speakers.

UMSI students’ app connects language learners and native speakers. Clockwise from top left, Lezhong Li, Stanley Chang, Surong Ruan and Min-Chih Liu.

Several UMSI students will be saying au revoir to Michigan and bonjour to Paris when they travel later this month to the international ACM SIGCHI (CHI) conference. Min-Chih Liu, Surong Ruan, Shih-Hsuan Chou, Lezhong Li, and Stanley Chang collaborated on a design project that was named a semi-finalist in the Student Design Competition at CHI. Their project, Xpress: Crowdsourcing Native Speakers to Learn Colloquial Expressions in a Second Language, is a mobile app that helps language learners acquire colloquial vocabulary.

Stanley said the idea for the app came to him through participating in a program that partners native speakers with second language learners. He is learning English, while his partner is studying Chinese. “I found the way you learn English when you are chatting is very different than learning in a formal, academic setting,” said Stanley. “For instance, one time I said to her, ‘The street is really crowded.’ She said, ‘No, you would say the street is packed.’ I was thinking, how would I know that?”

He has since learned that there are a lot of Chinese-speakers who want to learn English and vice versa. “There would be things I would want to know how to say, but I didn’t want to send anyone a message. I felt I’d be bothering them,” said Stanley. “I thought why don’t we design an application where we can learn from each other more easily?”

The Xpress team collaborated on every aspect of the project, first completing a contextual inquiry by interviewing eight learners and five instructors and observing a Chinese learning group. Based on that data, they took to their white boards and everyone sketched ideas for app features. After a lot of back-and-forth, intense discussion of what the platform was for, they changed the original idea quite a bit.

The group decided to focus on collecting colloquial expressions which users can search by key word or by submitting a question. The team wanted a simple app that could help second language learners speak more fluently in daily life. “It’s not always easy to make a native-speaking friend. Some of us may be shy to ask questions,” said Lezhong.

Through the research and interviews, they decided that answers should be limited to one-sentence expressions. “Let’s say you want to order something, like a cappuccino and you submit it to the crowd,” said Stanley. “It’s very easy for native speakers to answer back. They don’t even have to think about it. With crowdsourcing, it’s very fast and there’s no wrong or right answer, and the more diverse the better.”

A unique feature of the app is the ability to submit a photograph or image along with the question. “We found it’s not always easy to describe the context of a question,” said Lezhong. “That’s how we came up with the multi-media function of the app.”

Min-Chih has already put the theory into practice. “We were in our apartment when the power shut off,” she said. “We didn’t know how to communicate the problem with the leasing office. We thought it would be better if we could take a picture of the circuit box, so we did, and they came and fixed it.”

In addition, Xpress has a feature for recording phrases. “People speak differently, and they have different accents, depending on if they are from the south of China or the north,” Lezhong said.

Finally, how to motivate users was a key question the team addressed, in part, with a rewards system for answering questions. Users can also earn a better user reputation if they answer questions and if others “collect” their phrases.

“I thought this project was very meaningful,” said Stanley. “I wanted to help international students, and I think this app will be very useful for second language learners.”

CHI is the premier conference on human-computer interaction. This year’s conference theme is “Changing Perspectives.”

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