Cheng "Lily" Li
Visual and Product Designer




NativeTongue is a work in progress personal project. The goal of this project is to develop a mobile app that helps caregivers to teach preschoolers a new language.


Table of Contents



Many multilingual parents and grandparents I know are interested in teaching their children another language. Some wants to continue their heritage, and some are aware of studies that show speaking multiple languages can benefit children's developments 1. They want to have more time and resources for such education. This may be true for many others too: Approximately 13% of the United States population is foreign born2, and approximately 21% of US population age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home3.

Would language learning apps help? Researches show 90% of children had a moderate ability to use a tablet by age of two4, and American Academy of Pediatricians recommends up to one hour of high-quality screen time a day for 2 – 5 years olds5. Since language development begins early and repeated usage is the key to language retention5, caregivers may consider letting preschoolers play language learning games. However, most foreign language learning apps are tailored toward older children, and it can be difficult to find apps for some languages.

Product Idea


My idea is to create an app that enables multilingual caregivers teach their young children another language through self-generated content and preset games. It would allow children to learn through play, while giving caregivers control of the educational material, such as enabling them to teach a specific dialect.

I plan to develop these features in phases, such as

  1. Start with one language and one type of game to evaluate the effectiveness of this teaching method

  2. Add more preset games and a reward system to optimize the gaming mechanisms

  3. Introduce the ability to add user generated content, e.g. self-recorded videos play to the child

  4. Enable users to create text and voice-over for existing games, in their own language

  5. Allow sharing among family members

  6. Create online communities for sharing trusted content

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User Research

Online Survey

I sent out a survey to adults to understand their background, their desire to teach their children another language, and their children’s screen usage.

User Background: Among those who completed the survey, 26 people have at least one child or grandchild between the age of one and six. Among these 26, 84.6% are first or second generation immigrants, 88.4% speak at least one language other than English, and 80.8% of their parents are fluent in another language. Many of them speak Chinese or Spanish.


76.9% of the 26 people noted it’s important to them for their children to learn another language early.

There were four parents who are not first or second generation immigrants. All four of them found it less important for their children to learn another language before age seven. 

Except for one parent, all of the first or second generation immigrant parents were Asian. In general, Asian parents are known to be very involved in their children’s education, so ethnic background may be another explanation for this pattern.


When asked “how happy are you with your child’s second language skills?”, most caregivers want their children to learn more, i.e. least happy. This includes the non-immigrant parents.

Based on follow-up conversations, most people who are very happy with their children’s language skills speak almost exclusively in non-English language to their children.

Many of these parents also teach their children a second language through other activities

  • 54% have someone speak to their children in another language.

  • 31% have books or toys in another language.

  • 27% show their kids video or songs in another language.

However, there is no correlation between the number of language learning activities and satisfaction with their children’s second language skills.

All children in this survey get less than two hours of screen time a day on average, with less time being more common. Moreover, there is no correlation between screen children’s age and screen time. Notably, none of parents use an app to teach their children a second language, but most of them are open to try an app that does.

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To better understand the survey results, I interviewed a couple parents and a grandparent (interview questions and answers) and observed some of their children. Two of the parents want their children to learn a different dialect and a different language.

Reasons for these caregivers to want their preschoolers to learn another language:

  1. “It’s useful.”

  2. Learning a second language “teaches a person to appreciate another culture and to think differently.”

  3. To communicate with family members and to pass down cultural heritage.

  4. “It’s good to start early!”

The interest for user generated content (voice over, recording) is not high. For example, one second generation immigrant parent stated he is not fluent enough with a second language to record it for his child. However, one parent mentioned writing journal to her children in her native language and another asked about daily recording of her child speaking in a second language.

User Research Takeaways

  • Based on literature research and observing children interacting with digital devices, children aged two and up are more equipped to handle digital devices and screen time. Since five and six year olds can follow instructions consistently and play with existing language apps, early iterations of this app will focus on 2 - 4 year olds.

  • In early iterations, our main persona will be young children of first and second generation immigrants.

  • All interviewees limited screen time for their young children, therefore the app will not require long sessions.  

  • None of the interviewees expect their child to write in a second language before age seven. Hence the app will focus primarily on understanding and speaking another language.

  • It may be helpful for an app to connect parents to language immersion resources.

  • The interest for self recorded content is not high. However, there may be interest for a text or video journal.

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Competitive Analysis

In this analysis, I’m focusing on creating an engaging language learning experience for preschoolers, instead of the sharing and community building component. I evaluated several language learning apps and some toddler games by testing each myself for two minutes or longer and watching a 2.5 year child interacting with them.

Popular language learning apps

  • Examples: Rosetta Stone, HiNative, Babblel, HelloChinese, Busuu, Duolingo, Learn Chinese Cantonese

  • Pros: They are structured and teach some grammar in addition to vocabulary.

  • Cons: They are either too difficult or too dry for a preschooler to play for more than a couple of minutes.

Popular toddler games

  • Example: ABC Animals - Baby Boat Apps, Buzzle, Epic! Khan Academy Kids

  • Pros: Simple interface, lots micro-interactions, variety of games, delightful music, fun reward systems.

  • Cons: The child cried every time I took the games away. Some games are not available offline.

  • Note: I avoided games with advertisements because they are distracting and often cause my tester to melt-down.

Toddler language learning apps - I performed additional analyses on three direct competitors (Details).

  1. Fun Chinese Studycat - A large variety of games that teaches vocabulary and limited grammar. Some requires sound and a few requires recording. While playing, the 2.5 year old tester shouted out words she just learned.

  2. Spanish School Bus by Chungaboo - It teaches Spanish vocabulary through preset games, quizzes, and songs. However, the application is not intuitive to beginners, the clickable areas are smaller, and the general design is more focused on repetition than exploring.

  3. Dr. Seuss’s ABC - A great set of books that can be read by users or by a story-teller (automatically or page by page). Each word is highlighted as the story-teller reads. Users can also tap on any object in the book for the story-teller to name.

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Persona and Empathy Map

To ensure the product is designed with specific users in mind, I created three persona based on user research: Parent and child are the primary personas, grandparent is the secondary persona.

User Stories

To determine what to include in the first iteration of the app, I ranked features and their corresponding user stories. Below are four high ranking features, as well as one example of user story and requirements. See additional high level user stories.

  1. Card matching memory game that also teaches Chinese Mandarin.

    • User Story: As a kid, I want to play a game that teaches me words, their meanings and pronunciations, so learning is more fun.

    • Requirements: Create a memory card flip that that teaches simple vocabulary.
      1.1 At the start of each game level, there are an even number of cards facing down.
      Start with N = 6 cards for level 1, and increase the number of cards by 2 for each level. N = (Level - 1)*2 + 6
      1.2 Users can “flip over” a card through tapping. The “flipped” card includes a picture and a word that describes the picture in Mandarin. Audio pronunciation of the word plays simultaneously as the word appears.
      1.3 When two cards are flipped, if they match, remove them while playing a woosh sound. If they don’t match, flip them back.

      1.4 Each card flip and card removal is accompanied by minor repositioning of neighboring cards, simulating the bouncing effect.
      1.5 A level is completed when all cards are removed.

  2. Kid view, caregiver view, and the ability to switch between them (MVP)

  3. Journal for parents

  4. Video sharing with relatives

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Site Map

To ensure the organization of features is intuitive, I asked two parents and one grandparent to sort a list of tasks.


Card Sort Findings

  • There is general consensus around the following categories: “Games/Content”, “Journal/Journey”, and “Settings\”.

  • Most people pulled out sticker related activities at first, but grouped them with “Games” when asked to consolidate groups with few items.

  • Switching modes between “child” and “caregiver” are frequently grouped under “Settings”

  • “Video/content review” was confusing - one person grouped it with journal, one grouped it into “auditory” then “settings”, and one group it under “video”. I removed this task because it requires designation of primary and secondary caregivers, which may cause confusion.

  • There was little consensus on where “see what the kid has learned” is grouped: One person grouped it with quiz, one grouped it with journal, and one with profile.

Based on the card sort, I created the following site map for the initial features: game and journal. The child only has access to the game.

User Flow

Below are flow diagrams for:

  1. Jacob exploring the app and playing games

  2. Sandy entering a journal entry

  3. Lucy uploading recorded video for Jacob to watch

Style Guide

Usability Testing

I tested the initial gray-scale prototype with five children between age two and five. My goals were to assess usability and to explore trade-offs with horizontal and vertical (portrait) layouts.

Main Tasks for Testers

  • Hold the phone

  • Find the number five through clicking on the prototype

  • Do it again with different orientation, and again with a different sized phone

Summary of Findings

  1. Testing with children:
    I tested the clickable grayscale prototype with one child at airport, two children at a children’s museum, and two at my house. The amount of distractions and new toys nearby negatively correlate with children’s interest in testing. In the future, I recommend using a colorful functional prototype, in controlled environments with minimal distractions or at the child’s house. It would also be helpful to set expectation with parents ahead of time, so they provide necessary but minimal assistance.

  2. Usability:
    Clickable areas are generally large enough.
    Most testers tried both tapping and swiping.
    The final product needs a lot more color, sound, and animation.

  3. Horizontal vs vertical layout:

Horizontal Layout

  • Pros: Familiar hold, most testers watch videos in horizontal format.
    To minimize the issue of finger on screen and to adhere to one aspect ratio for tablet and phone, it may be worthwhile to leave the areas at the left and right of the screen blank.

  • Cons: Middle of screen is difficult to reach. When testing with a large phone, many kids held the phone with one hand or put it on a flat surface, so they have one free hand to tap the screen.

Vertical (Portrait) Layout

  • Pros: Several kids hold the phone with two hands in the middle, so they have easy access to the game content and won’t accidentally hit navigational icons.
    Performing the task on vertical layout generally took less time. This could be due to interface and test content set up -- Most of the testing content are closer to the top left in vertical view.

  • Cons: Some kids find it difficult to balance larger phones vertically. System navigation is difficult to reach.

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Prototype and Next Steps

Below is a sample workflow of a card matching game for learning numbers in Chinese. I’m working on the development of this product. If you would like to get in touch, drop me a note.

Sources Cited

  1. The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” by Viorica Marian, Ph.D. and Anthony Shook, published on October 31, 2012; accessed on July 25, 2018.

  2. Census data: 42,194,354 / 348,558,162; accessed on July 25, 2018.

  3. 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates and tabular Census data; accessed on July 25, 2018.

  4. The iPad really IS child's play: More than half of toddlers can use Apple's tablet when they are just ONE, researchers say” by Mark Prigg for on published on July 3, 2015; accessed on July 25, 2018.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use” by American Academy of Pediatrics, published on October 21, 2016; accessed on July 25, 2018.

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