Language learning in virtual reality.

Date February - May 2019
Virtual Reality
Rayna Allonce, Gaby Gayles, Nur Icel, & Swarnakshi Kapil
My Role
Product Designer; Project Manager; Videographer


How might we make language learning
more immersive?

Foreign languages are best learned in an immersive context, where users can observe and interact with native speakers in real-life scenarios. Barriers including physical distance complicate language learning, making schools and apps turn to the next best solution: repetition and memorization. Can we leverage existing technology to solve the language learning gap?

Less than 1% of American adults are proficient in a language they learned in school.

School programs and language learning apps aren't very effective in helping people learn a new language. To become truly fluent, users must absorb language in context.


An immersive, gamified language learning experience.

Brocca is a language learning game that fully immerses users via VR. Players explore virtual cities where their target language is spoken and learn how to apply words and phrases in real-life scenarios by interacting with landmarks and AI characters. Learners can also interact with content uploaded by native speakers, such as photos, music, and slang, and are encouraged to give back by submitting their own content.



Traveling to virtual cities.

Users travel to different cities in virtual reality where their target language is spoken. Each destination offers unique landmarks and challenges, as well as cultural variations in customs and vocabulary.

Learning vocabulary in context.

Landmarks have language-learning challenges that users must play to unlock new cities and progress in the game. For example, users may encounter a labeling game, in which they first absorb & then label the items around a house.

Repeating phrases aloud with AI characters.

As users progress in Brocca, they encounter verbal challenges with AI characters, and are tasked with repeating phrases aloud to understand pronunciation.

Interacting with user-generated content.

Ultimately, Brocca is a social language-learning platform. Our research showed that beginners are hesitant to interact with more advanced speakers and coordinating interactions across time zones is tricky. We solved this by providing the option to upload content and earn XP.


What I contributed to the project

As a Project Manager and Product Designer, I kept our team on task to ensure that we'd meet deadlines and also created our final prototype. Here are some of my most notable contributions:

  • Interviewed two language learners to understand their perspectives and unique pain points
  • Ideated solutions (including our final VR concept!) & speed dated with participants to validate needs
  • Facilitated two rounds of experience prototyping with 5 participants to simulate VR
  • Owned lo- to hi-fi prototyping of final interface; created buttons and icons implemented throughout Brocca
  • Conceptualized mini games featured within Brocca
  • Animated several screens in Principle to convey final concept
  • Created final concept video in Final Cut Pro


Literature Review
Competitive Analysis
Synthesis & Extracting Insights
Speed Dating


Experience Prototyping
Lo- to High-Fidelity Prototypes
Animated Final Interface
Concept Video


21 articles taught us that culture and context are key to language learning.

We extracted key insights from scientific articles related to goal-setting, language science, cultural immersion, and gamification.


Immersion is key to fluency & cultural acceptance.

Research shows that language is best learned in context via comprehensible input— repeated exposure to grammatical and verbal patterns of a language. Interacting with individuals abroad in context can solve misguided assumptions, increase cultural awareness and openness, and embellish creativity.


Beginners go through a "silent period".

Forcing second language learners to speak too soon is both uncomfortable and ineffective. New learners should first endure a "silent period", in which they passively listen to and absorb language before speaking themselves. This enables them to more readily absorb pronunciations and grammatical patterns as they advance.


Advanced users desire more negative feedback.

As individuals begin to gain more language proficiency, the value of negative feedback increases as it provides specific information that can be helpful for advancement. Positive feedback is better for beginners, as it makes a goal seem more attainable.


Uncovering an unmet need for an immersive tool to learn language in context.

Popular language learning tools emphasize repetitive vocabulary practice instead of immersion and social learning. While this is helpful for beginners, memorization is short-lived and doesn't bring someone to fluency.

Several "pen pal" oriented social language learning sites had poor UX and "trolls" infiltrating their online communities.


6 interviews taught us that users seek an immersive learning experience, but have difficulty finding one.

Our generative research phase resulted in two major insights—

1) Users want to not only learn a language, but to also experience a culture;
2) Practicing with a native speaker is ideal, but finding a "pen pal" is hard.

Personas allowed us to empathize with members of our target audience.


We speed dated 5 ideas with 5 individuals.

We generated solutions stemming from our research phase and tested them with multilingual individuals. Across the board, users truly detested a pen pal idea that we had been excited about— but responded positively to language learning activities in VR.


We experience prototyped our virtual reality concept with 5 participants.

As it's time consuming to prototype a functional VR environment, we Wizard of Oz-ed an experience prototype to quickly gather user feedback on the core functionalities of our social VR language learning platform.


Beginners don't want to interact with other users in VR.

Experience prototyping taught us that, in line with our literature review, beginners need a "silent period" in which they simply listen, observe, & absorb. Beginners felt very vulnerable interacting with other users in our VR space unless they were fellow beginners. Unless language learners have some baseline knowledge of the language they are trying to learn, neither listening to nor participating in a conversation are useful to them.


1. Pair words with visuals.

Action: Present items in both visual and verbal forms, allowing players to make visual associations with words.

Rationale: In experience prototyping, our participants fared best when menu items were accompanied by photos and words in our restaurant challenge.

2. Awarding XP for contributions to Brocca.

Action: Encourage users to participate in multiple ways by implementing a music & photo gallery for native speakers to contribute to the site. Award XP for submissions.

Rationale: Culture is an essential part of language learning. Earning XP is enough encouragement to contribute music & images to the site.

3. Personalizing an avatar.

Action: XP points can be used to personalize avatars, creating a tailored online persona.

Rationale: Our literature review indicated that avatars can enhance enjoyment in games and increase users' sense of autonomy.

4. Unlocking new cities.

Action: Once users have completed the challenges in one city, they unlock the next! 

Rationale: Expose users to multiple cultures to increase awareness, openness, and empathy. For this reason, we chose to prototype Brocca in Chefchaoen, Morocco rather than a conventional French city, like Paris.


Incentivizing users can be tricky.

A caveat that we struggled with was how to ensure that we properly incentivized native speakers to contribute to Brocca. Ultimately, we decided that earning XP was enough encouragement to contribute, but our decision would need to be tested further in order to be validated.

Brocca should be made more accessible.

Despite broadly making immersive language learning a more accessible endeavor, Brocca's existence as a virtual reality game inherently limits its audience to individuals who can afford a VR headset. Workarounds like Google Cardboard can temporarily solve for this, but if we had more time we'd like to explore alternative solutions— perhaps AR or something less technical— to allow everyone to access Brocca.


"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do." –Rumi

© Molly Vierhile 2019