This Seattle high schooler is leading a nonprofit to help refugees and immigrants learn English

Subha Vadlamannati, founder of Linguistics Justice League. (Linguistics Justice League Photo)

When 16-year-old Subha Vadlamannati isn’t playing the piano or digitally drawing Anime characters, she’s helping refugee and immigrant students learn English using her passion for computational linguistics.

The Seattle-area high school student became fascinated with computer-human interactions ever since she learned about AlphaGo, Google’s AI program that defeated the Go board game world champion. This interest led her down a path of data science, computational linguistics, and natural language processing.

Vadlamannati founded the Linguistics Justice League in late 2020 after learning about the refugee crisis. It raises awareness for language divides and provides technology support for low-resource languages that are spoken by large populations but have less data available for translation.

The Linguistics Justice League originally provided STEM tutoring for local refugee and immigrant students. In mid-2021, Vadlamannati reframed the organization to help teach English after she realized many students interested in her STEM workshops couldn’t attend because they didn’t know English and language programs were often understaffed.

“The problem was a lot of the students spoke a big variety of different languages and dialects,” Vadlamannati said. “When I went on Google Translate and tried to speak with them or at least try to make content in their languages, I often didn’t even find the languages they spoke.”

The Linguistics Justice League partners with Neural Space, a natural language processing company offering a variety of translation services for low-resource languages. Vadlamannati’s nonprofit has 32 volunteers working to build infrastructure and different apps that help users build English proficiency.

Linguistics Justice League’s world language workshop in Africa. (Linguistics Justice League Photo)

One of the apps is EduLang, which allows users to read stories in English and their native language side-by-side through automatic translation technology. Other apps include PuzzLing, which scores multilingual sentence puzzles in real-time; FlashLing, which helps vocabulary retention through multilingual flashcards; and SimiLing, which provides similarity scores for guessed words so users can learn synonyms.

Vadlamannati said the Linguistics Justice League is also focused on activism through initiatives including language workshops in Ghana and collections of stories from around the world so kids are encouraged to preserve their native languages.

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The ongoing pandemic played an important role in helping the Linguistics Justice League use technology, since many refugee students did not previously have access to online services. More refugee organizations covered access to the internet and devices for online conferencing after the pandemic hit, Vadlamannati said.

Earlier this year, Vadlamannati received the Society of Women Engineers STEM in Action award and was accepted to the Microsoft Startup Founder Hub, which provides access to an extensive mentor network and funding. Vadlamannati was also published in the Journal of Student Research for a research paper she wrote last summer on the gender gap in refugee pay.

Going forward, Vadlamannati hopes to include both audio and visual aspects in Linguistic Justice League services, which she said is the most requested feature from users. Vadlamannati, a junior at Mercer Island High School, also has big aspirations for her own future: she wants to build a computer that can seamlessly interact with humans in all modalities.

“I realize that my naïve dream of making computers and humans come together is still a few years — if not decades — away, but that makes the problem all that more interesting to me. There is so much left to do!” Vadlamannati said.

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