Student research team creates app to reduce barriers for multilingual families

Free app aims to improve home-to-school connection for families who don't speak English at home

Amie Filkow - 26 March 2021

When Skanda Kaushik and his parents moved to Edmonton from Bangalore, India, eight winters ago, they felt a deep freeze in more than one sense. Remembering how isolated the family felt in those first months, Kaushik, now a second-year nursing student at the University of Alberta, says the Canadian elementary school culture seemed foreign compared to what they were used to back in India. Even though his parents – an engineer and a professor of business – spoke fluent English, they didn’t immediately understand the assessment methods their son’s teachers used, and didn’t know to access the school’s online resources for more information.

So when Kaushik got the opportunity to join a research team helping multilingual families and minority speakers experiencing communication barriers, he knew he had to help. The team of seven students and two researchers from the U of A and the University of Calgary came together in November 2020 to compete in the Neuro Nexus challenge, an Alberta-made inter-university research accelerator and design competition to create solutions that impact neuroscience and mental health. The students came from diverse disciplines but shared an understanding of the problem: that families who don’t speak English at home often feel cut off from their child’s school and struggle to communicate with the teacher. 

Like Kaushik, every student member of the team had some experience with a communication breakdown between parents and teachers, said Andrea MacLeod, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “Either they or their parents had moved to Canada as teens or young adults, so our team was able to come together and figure out a solution that would help families.” 

Over the course of six weeks, the team developed, programmed and prototyped linGrow, a free and accessible app that helps multilingual families support their children’s language development by providing language activities that encourage interaction between parents and children. The app also gives families access to information and facilitates communication between parents, teachers and researchers. The target users are families and teachers in preschool and elementary settings where parents may struggle to communicate in English, and their kids can’t yet read and translate documents for them. 

“There’s a link between home-to-school communication and academic success,” said
Catrine Demers, a speech-language pathologist and postdoctoral fellow in MacLeod’s Multilingual Families Lab. “If we can increase communication between parents and teachers, it means a better relationship between the teacher and the child as well as more parental involvement, which positively influences the child’s academic success.” 

Applications for translation don’t allow for direct communication between parents and teachers, said Demers. The team aims for linGrow to help parents easily interact with teachers and researchers. Users can capture, send and share videos of language activities, access a built-in translator, and follow simple English phrases and translations in text or voice-over to support a range of linguistic and literacy levels among users.

What makes the linGrow project so unique is that it was designed and driven by undergraduate students, said MacLeod. “We brought the problem to them and they developed the app, did the marketing and conducted interviews with possible users.” 

The students spoke to parents and community organizations to better understand what resources and features needed to be built into the app. One community partner, ABC Head Start Society, works with kids and families experiencing low income, learning delays and other vulnerabilities. Seventy-eight per cent of the families they serve speak a first language other than English. Staff is planning ways to apply virtual language programming such as the linGrow app during the COVID-19 pandemic, said April MacDonald Killins, Manager of Community Resilience and Innovation for ABC Head Start Society. “Families aren’t allowed in many of our school-based sites because of school board pandemic policies,” she said. “That has made it much harder for our classroom teams to communicate effectively with parents and caregivers, especially when there are language barriers. The linGrow app will be so valuable for relationship building between staff and families.”

Although the student team didn’t win at NeuroNexus, the judges’ panel was impressed by the potential usefulness of the linGrow app and remarked how many people would have benefited from it growing up. Moving forward, the cross-disciplinary research team continues to meet virtually. They are now developing a mobile version of the app and look forward to usability testing.

Kaushik has high hopes for the app’s future, because he knows what it would have done for his family. “I definitely think the transition would have been much easier.”