Regina Leader-Post: U of R, RPL partner on new app to help Arabic-speakers learn English

“You can imagine the amount of frustration when you go to a foreign country and people there speak a language that you don’t understand.”

Thanks to a partnership between the University of Regina and the Regina Public Library (RPL), Arabic-speaking refugees and recent immigrants now have another way to improve their English skills.

A pilot project led by Munira Al-Ageili, a U of R post-doctoral fellow in computer sciences, was launched by the RPL in April and uses a smart device application equipped with pictograms and audio recordings to help teach English.

“You can imagine the amount of frustration when you go to a foreign country and people there speak a language that you don’t understand,” said Al-Ageili.

With a number of more and more newcomers moving to Regina, she said she was inspired to help families improve their communication skills so they can integrate more easily into the community and make sure their daily needs are met.

“They come with limited English skills so we saw the need to help them,” she said.

The pilot project provides participants with a time and place to work with the app for free. The app uses pictograms to identify various words or phrases and when the pictograms are touched, recordings of the words are played out loud in English and Arabic.

Participants will not only practice their language skills through the app, but also help Al-Ageili develop the content of the app by helping select pictograms to ensure they are culturally appropriate and understood by the users.

“It’s depends on users input from the beginning to the testing,” she explained.

To start, Al-Ageili will meet one-on-one with participants, but the program will eventually be expanded and participants will be able to work with volunteers within the RPL’s literacy department.

“We thought this sounded like exactly the kind of thing that we should be doing,” said Nancy MacKenzie, manager of community engagement and programming at the RPL.

MacKenzie said the library was on board from the moment the U of R’s community research unit reached out to them and that the pilot project fits in well with what the library is already doing to teach Engliah and literacy skills .

Funding for the project will also help increase access to the service for residents, said MacKenzie.

“Finding childcare is such a barrier to people looking to access services period, but certainly looking to improve their English,” she said. “There is money in the budget to pay for people’s childcare so they can come in and do this on a regular basis.”

The sessions will take place at the library, likely once a week to start, with each session lasting one to two hours depending on the needs and schedules of the participant.

The project will last for two years, with participants input and collaboration into the content of the app taking a year to a year-and-a-half.

“When the content of the app is complete, or we feel it is complete, we test with the users,” said Al-Ageili, who’s working under the supervision of the U of R’s computer science department head, Malek Mouhoub.

The research team will collect feedback through the testing period and refine the app as needed.

The pilot project is being funded by the George Reed Centre and Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that sponsors research internships.

For more information on how to get involved in the project, call the RPL’s literacy department at 306-777-6009 or email 

Source: Regina Leader-Post