Doctoral Student Researches Language and Technology to Help Others

By Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill and Cynthia Hollenbeck

Jose Riera, Ph.D. candidate in Washington State University’s College of Education, focuses his research on developing computer applications to help foreign language learners, immigrants, and individuals with communicative disabilities to improve their pronunciation skills. According to Jose, there are 1 billion foreign language learners, 275 million immigrants, and 550 million individuals with communicative disabilities worldwide. With these numbers, Jose hopes this research will make a notable impact on the language-learning world.

One of the main challenges for second language learners is understanding and articulating unfamiliar new sounds in their target language. Jose believes that by providing these learners with significant auditory and visual cues, we can help support and enhance their pronunciation.

In 2019, Riera started in the WSU College of Education’s Language, Literacy, and Technology doctorate program. He decided to come to WSU for two reasons: the first was because WSU’s College of Education enabled him to integrate his interest in technology and languages in teaching. The second was that by attending WSU, he could be closer to his daughters, Natalia and Marilyn. Not only that, he’s building a Coug legacy, because his daughter Natalia is a junior in the WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Go Cougs!

In Jose’s first semester at WSU, he presented his research proposal, which focused on using facial recognition technology to teach phonetics. This research was developed in collaboration with Howard Davis, Mark Vandam, Don McMahon, and Professor Takeshi Saitoh of the Kyushu Institute of Technology.  Jose’s proposal was selected as the overall winner of the WSU’s Research Week Travel Grant Competition.

Jose said he was inspired by his immigrant students when he worked as an ESL instructor at the Pleasanton Public Library, as well as his colleagues with disabilities at the Center for Independent Living in Oakland, California.  In his research, he relies on the language learning theoretical frameworks proposed by linguistic scholars, such as Stephen Krashen, Tracy Derwing, and Olusola Adesope.  Jose’s research has already earned him significant recognition, including nine research and academic awards from notable organizations, including Facebook, The Seattle Times, and the Brain Injury Association of Washington.

Author and human rights advocate Timothy Pina once said, “When you work to inspire others […] Your reward is in helping better themselves, lifting your life in the process.” This quote has become one that Jose lives by. He said that the quote motivates him to
continue giving back to WSU, a school that has supported him actively during the past years.

Jose is a co-founder of a virtual support group called “e-Togetherness” that was created at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. The group’s goal is to connect masters, doctorate, and professional students virtually during these isolated times. In addition, Jose is a member of WSU’s Disabled Students and Allies Club. “I know firsthand,” Jose said, “how motivated we are to belong in our society, and I saw how my research could facilitate that process.”

In Fall 2020, Jose co-authored a meta-analysis of computer-assisted pronunciation technology (CAPT) applications in second language instruction with Dr. Olusola Adesope and Oluwafemi Johnson. One of their key findings showed that CAPT was very effective when used to practice the pronunciation of targeted sounds that exist in the second language but may not exist in the learner’s native tongue. Their conclusions will help language teachers and software developers understand how to use CAPT applications more effectively.

After earning his doctoral degree, Jose will pursue faculty positions in higher education at universities that share his passion for promoting the social advancement of underserved diverse communities.