Mobile Phones + English Language Learning - ya what?

Tokyo TrainstationToday, while waiting for my S-bahn to arrive to take me to classes out of the city centre, I observed a young man sporting a heavy backpack, carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and a small, sleek, black device in the other, running to catch his train.

He didn't make it.   

Not because of the coffee, the phone or even the extra weight on his back but because he was wearing jeans which fell halfway down his bum and well, having no hands free... well, you know what I mean, don't you?  

I feel the same way about Crocs, the Noughties answer to things which really should never be worn on the feet, at any cost, at all, for any other reason than to garden.  They are big, fat, plastic slipper things - yes, indeedy-do, that's exactly what they are.

Perhaps if I had never read Gladwell's Tipping Point, I would have spent the rest of my life in the dark, never quite understanding how the dumbest of concepts ever manage to find their way to becoming popular... but I did read it...  and having read Lindstrom's Buyology  as well, I can tell ya, for a fact that people do what other people do and that's just what people do.
(It's a survival of the species thing).

Getting to be the first though is the trick to making big money in this world, so if that's your dream, then you'll probably have to design the next pair of Crocs before anyone else in the whole wide world would ever wear them or you'll have to create a music device and then attach dangly, tangly white earphones to them (why on god's green earth hasn't someone invented the no-wire-necessary headphones yet???) or you'll have to convince a Rap Star to put on jeans which come up to just below the waist.

Don't do these things though if you don't want to lose money.  Because to be honest, let's face it, not  everyone who dreams up smart ideas wins big. Lots try, lots blow out lots of smoke however lots, months later, years later, lots have heads that roll due to lots of losses incurred in lots of research, development, marketing and production.

Which happens to bring me, really quite nicely, to M-language-learning.

Ya what?

Lots of stuff 'bout that's being bandied about on the 'net recently.

Some back story first though.   Being a bit of a tech nerd, I was the proud holder of one of the first SmartPhones, a Windows powered HTC-Qtek,  a wonderful Taiwanese machine way before its time - pre-dating the i-phone by quite a number of years.   So sometime back in 2005 or 2006,  in class with my one of my students ("a CEO" who wanted to increase his vocabulary) we came up with the grand plan of auto-messages delivered daily: Word-of-the-Day by SMS.

The first problem we ran into... in our mind's eye, of course, we didn't actually follow-through because this was all fictional situational language practice for him, was that due to the absolute lack of market saturation of SmartPhones at that time (he had a BlackBerry) it would be impossible to monetize but rather a lot of work to set up.
Then good old Steve Jobs brought out the admittedly gorgeous i-phone and the whole wide world went berserk for all things Apple (I'm not a fan of 'closed' company workings meself). On top of that, Jobs, rather cleverly set the whole thing up so that necessary apps to make the thing cooler would cost.  

And the world began to see a shift towards monetization from the internet...

And the first people who got on that particular train made lots and lots of  moooooola....

Today, if you watch the ELT twitterverse and read through upcoming conference presentation schedules for the next six months then you'll begin, like me, to notice a bit of a trend forming...  mobile phones are suddenly becoming "hot" learning tools - despite the low level saturation amongst teachers themselves - and these devices are being touted about as the very next big thing in language learning...

You'd be forgiven for thinking that probably one of the ELT publishers or one of the big-name  institutional chains is busy developing an app, you really would.

But, um,  

but uh-hum,

before we go a bit too hastily into that good night, could we take a deep breath and take a little rational peek into what the greater majority of people in the world who own phones (who can afford these things and the access to the 'net) actually use them for, which is:

General phones
  • Talking to friends
  • Talking to family
  • Talking to colleagues
  • Playing games

  • Talking to friends
  • Talking to family
  • Talking to colleagues
  • Playing games
  • Talking to friends on social networks
  • Talking to family on social networks
  • Receiving and answering work 
  • Receiving and answering personal emails
  • Checking calendar and tasks
  • Jotting down quick notes (and even recording new ideas for blogs)
  • Quickly checking on news headlines
  • Find locations on maps quickly
  • Checking for random information (secretive fact verifying in pub-quizzes)
  • Listening to music
  • Catching up on the plethora of podcasts you wish you hadn't downloaded
  • Watching short TED videos
Internet access is on the rise, it is... but...

where, why, often, what for....

see the thing is, really, the phone is principally a communicative device.  I don't know a single person who has learned a language on one or even wants to... I really don't.  It's just not... motivational.

The phone has successfully made its way into entertainment but as anyone who tried to make the SecondLife or Gaming crossover (or even TV) into real education or language training will tell you the mix between inane, brain-numbing, relaxing entertainment and education for educational sake does not seem to ever reach a tipping point. 

Sometimes people actually want to go about their lives:  downtime is downtime, travel time is travel time and they don't actually want their devices to take over their entire lives...

Sometimes those who have time on their hands (literally) seem to forget this...
Sometimes, like my friend with his pants slipping half down his legs, some of us are actually just too much in a rush juggling gazillions of activities and the very last thing on our minds in the conjugation of verbs.  The prospect of sitting on a sofa learning a language with it makes zero sense so until someone stands up and says hey! I learned my Maori and Finnish on my phone and this is how I did it... then I'll be a critical thinker and wonder where the dollar bills are and who's looking for them.



just another fad...

Am I wrong?

What do you think?

Do you think other than students checking out Wikipedia and their online dictionaries that there's any kind of possibility and real future in Mobile Language Learning?

Tell me why you think this, am looking forward to sharing your thoughts and experiences...

Useful links related to this posting: 
Previous posts on using Smartphones in the language classroom 

MILLEE: (Indian project)
Text2Teach (Philipines project)
Nokia's program in China
Learning with Apple
Education Apps for the I-phone

Best, Karenne

(p.s I downgraded on the Smartphone, last year, by the way - to the LG Prada... and I no longer access the 'net with mine - sometimes life just really has to quiet, filled with inane tasks like watching people catch trains). :)))
p.p.s As I've mentioned elsewhere I do see a future in tablets, net-books and other portable devices just not with small, primarily used to communicate with loved ones, devices that you carry around in your pocket).

20 Responses to “Mobile Phones + English Language Learning - ya what?”

  • Cecilia says:
    September 09, 2010

    Hi Karenne,

    I have to say I am a bit scared of actually saying what I think, answering your question. Because the thing about technology is that it is so wonderfully dynamic - always changing. So I may give my opinion on it today and something will turn up tomorrow that will make my opinion ridiculously wrong.

    But I am not one to keep myself quiet when someone asks for my opinion. But before I go on, please be aware that I am not your expert on technology. I am far from it. I love technology and am learning a lot about it and the new tools available, especially after joining twitter. So, keep that in mind when you read what I have to say ok?

    I am totally for the use of smartphones (and/or any other device of the sort) in the language classroom, as long as its use is negotiated (as Scott Thornbury said in Jason's blog on a comment about a post with a discussion very similar to this one). But, as much as I see the benefits these devides will bring to the classes and the students' learning, I cannot see them as anything more than just tools. Just ANOTHER tool, another resource.

    Hey, tomorrow there might be something new that will prove me wrong. But right now, that's what I think. Smartphones help language learning by making communication easier and more accessible, providing you great language tools with one touch (dictionaries, wikis, podcasts, texts..etc etc). But that's the scope of it. In my (very, very) humble opinion.

  • Darren says:
    September 09, 2010

    I think you are missing a trick or two here. I agree that it might be difficult to learn a language on a smartphone, but there is huge potential for quick practice and time passing. I use kanji flashcards on my ipod touch, as I imagine do most non-Japanese people with such devices in Japan. Apps are only a couple of quid each, and can be bought through the device itself instantly. As the iPhone apps, and iPad too, are outselling music on iTunes, there is great potential for someone. Apple makes it pretty easy for developers, too.

    Just read a great book about digital games and the author talked about 'casual gaming'.. the kind of game you play on your phone when you are waiting for a bus. If you had a fun little game you could play to unwind, that cost a couple of Euros, and reviewed some German vocabulary, and you could buy it in ten seconds on a little touchscreen without having to put in any details or credit card numbers....

    September 09, 2010

    Hi ya Cecilia, your comment is very welcome, thank you very much for adding your thoughts here(and for coming back - I found your comment from the other day too, Blogger have installed a spam protection thing! Hopefully now you should be okay)...

    I agree with you entirely that Smarthphones help language learning by making communication easier and even by accessing information - but like you, think that is the limit...

    (see my comment to Darren below).

    September 09, 2010

    Nah, Darren... thing is I reckon that there will be some juicy apps coming out by early next year but, like the Rosetta Stone or the box of CDs which I spent a fortune on prior to coming to Germany, there will be the "intent" to self-study and there will be the providers of apps for those who would kid themselves that they can "learn English in 3 months" and there will be the reality... I don't doubt beyond any question that there's money to be had in developing apps for the iphone and ipad but what I doubt is that there is any pedagogical value and that there will be any real language learning beyond the first week of download!

    But we shall see, we shall see...

  • Mike Harrison says:
    September 09, 2010

    Agree with Darren here - mobile (on true mobiles, not tablets or nothin') learning looks great for quick practice, or what I'd think of as 'support apps' - iPhone dictionaries, etc.

    I've never had a smart phone myself, and can't justify getting a tablet - the iPad is overpriced here in the UK, I read - so have basically zero knowledge about mlearning. Anyone out there to enlighten me?? (else I'll have to wait till Dudeney's preso at IATEFL...)

    Umm I think wireless headphones exist, don't they? I'd love to get some waterproof ones myself (and a waterproof iPod) - can someone sort that out too please? Would be most grateful =)

    September 09, 2010

    Hey Mike... do keep pushing for the freebies - I'm so convinced by the number of upcoming mobile presentations that someone is in the middle of developing something as we speak and they may well hear your cry...

    (but Dudeney, I think will be featuring a book on using mobiles(?) in the classroom, he mentioned some such thing on his blog, I think I read a month? ago) so perhaps he'll also be proving me totally wrong by featuring students' successes rather than only tips or lesson ideas... waiting to see!

    September 09, 2010

    Oh... really are there wireless headsets for music? I looked into bluetooth for the phone a while back and then decided it was too dangerous - I sometimes forget to check both sides of the street :)

  • Tara Benwell says:
    September 09, 2010

    We always said that we'd never let our kids wear "holey shoes" (Crocs). They are so ugly and look really uncomfortable! Then someone bought our kids holey shoes and we can't get our kids out of them (we still try). I just got an iPad. It was a gift. I never thought I'd read my kids books on a mobile device. Times change and sometimes I give in. I'm convinced that mlearning is one of those things that is here to stay. It would be great if we could all sit on a train and stare out the window and use the time to reflect (not study), but people are determined to fill every moment. I don't think that is going to change unless someone builds an app for that. I really enjoyed reading your side of this.

  • Darren says:
    September 09, 2010

    Maybe there won't be much learning going on, but there's shedloads of money to be made.... I got mixed messages from your post. What was the question again?

    ; P

    September 09, 2010

    Thanks Tara :-) Times do change... who knows perhaps I'm getting old...

    As I mentioned in my P.S, I do see great stuff happening with the I-pad and happen to love my netbook to bits, it's the phone angle I'm so disparaging of and while I think I-pads (dumb name, really, worse possible of silly names but how quickly it normalized) and hopefully when their betters are released by the more open companies, they'll have potential as normal reading devices..

    still, we tend to refer to mobiles as being phones no matter what is currently being said on twitter about "more to mobile technology than mobile phones" - as a general rule, we're mostly still talking about the thing we use to talk to other people with rather than the thing we can't make phone calls with...

    Hmm.. am rambling... early class tomorrow morning... ta for stopping by!


    September 09, 2010


    so late... but actually your flashcard thing sounds fun - perhaps because it's visual -

    but re my "point" or the post, it's more or less that I think

    it's a bunch of Croc...

    Shedloads of money, plastic and full of holes...

    run by bums...

    there were a lot of points and sub points and a bit of a laugh and wheyhey...people, really, come...on... who is possibly going to learn a language on a phone - I've yet to meet a single person who has learned a language using a self-study CD either...

    Na ja,

    off to bed! ta for coming back!

  • Alex Francisco says:
    September 10, 2010

    Hi Karenne,

    Like you pointed out, there is indeed "more to mobile technology than mobile phones", and, as far as its usefulness and effectiveness, Nicky Hockly's presentation "Teaching the Mobile Generation" at IATEFL ( had me convinced. So no, don't think it's a fad. I'm sure it will take time (doesn't everything else tech related?)to be fully accepted and implemented, but it'll get there.:)
    Where the mobile phone issue is concerned, I agree with you. I really doubt anyone will learn a language from scratch on their mobile. But then again, like with every learning, a lot depends on the learner's commitment doesn't it? Who knows, maybe will be pleasantly surprised.
    Now, as far as using it as an extension/complement of our classes (mind you, we teach totally different grades), yes, I does have a lot of potential. Not just to have students "checking out Wikipedia and their online dictionaries", but for so much more, like scavenger hunts,student/teacher produced podcasts and so many other different activities in and outside the class - I challenged my students to get people from outside school to text them what they were doing so we could play a game on the present continous; I also had a texting jargon competition for pen-pals day.
    I am really not interested in the latest app or how it's going to be monitized. I look at m-learning as I do with any other tech related topic/tool/whatever:What's in for my lessons and my students? And if indeed it complements my lesson aims then I'll use, if not, hot topic or not, you won't see it in my classes.
    Enough rambling!:) Here's my final contribution to your post: 3 links.
    - Mobile Learning: Using Tools at Hand -
    - 20 mLearning Tools in 60 Minutes -
    - Five Steps to Mobile Learning Success -

    Cheers for yet another thought provoking post!;)

  • Unknown says:
    September 10, 2010

    I confess when I saw the title of this post I thought it would be a spirited defense of mobile learning. From earlier posts and comments I imagined that most of your students had smartphones and you used them in class (seem to remember a post of yours on that). To see this post made me think "shock! horror!" I had to sit down with a cup of tea and calm my nerves to keep reading :-)

    I have not really tried using m learning stuff in the classroom so at the moment I have my doubts (partly because over half my students don't have smartphones, and those that do don't want to pay the internet access charge to check a corpus site or whatever). But outside of the classroom I think there's potential. It doesn't have to be some grammar gapfill app that I or some other ELT writer makes, although I'm sure plenty of those are coming. I would go with Darren that the best would be some kind of low-grade gaming thing, or apps with other uses that can be marshalled for extra language acquisition. E.g. using the GPS in your car set to English to practice that way.
    Or something else?

    But as you say, they are just another tool. No pedagogical value? I say it depends on the app. They won't replace teachers or live conversation but I wouldn't write off m-devices yet.

    My god... just read that last sentence and still can't believe I wrote that to you. What will come next? Will you turn your guns on the blogosphere? ;-)

    September 10, 2010


    Just rushing to class - I'll be that guy running for my train, I will... but quickly:

    sometimes we have to think critically, am having a bit of fun - exploring the other side (to everything - you know I don't completely hate textbooks either - I just like to ask hard hitting questions which provoke us, as educators, into deeper exploration of what we do and why we do it)...

    Now, see if I hadn't have done this post I wouldn't have got those fabulous links from Alex above.

    Hi Alex, same as above, rushing out - will respond to you later but thanks so much especially for that slideshare!


  • Unknown says:
    September 10, 2010

    Hey, I run a blog devoted to learning with mobile phones, but I completely agree that it's unlikely that anyone will use their mobile phones as a single device on which to learn a language.

    Better to see the mobile phone as a swiss army knife of useful functions and devices to complement their learning. A dictaphone to record their own or other voices, a dictionary to look up words on the fly, a MP3 player for listening to podcasts, an IM device for chatting to classmates, a camera for taking pictures and uploading to class blogs/social network sites.

    I noticed a few comments saying that this is 'all'that mobile phones can be - I would question that 'all', that seems like quite a lot for a tiny device that can fit in your pocket and goes with you everywhere!

    But who knows what the future will bring. I think the idea of what a mobile device actually is will change in the next few years. The smartphone as we know it will change from being a voice device to being a purely data device (this shift is already happening, data usage is going up and voice usage going down). The devices are likely to get bigger as well. Look to things like the Dell Streak or the Samsung Galaxy Tab as a glimpse of where things are going. Relatively large devices on which you can do a lot more but which still function as phones and can fit into your pocket (admittedly a very large pocket!)

  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    September 10, 2010

    I think with all learning tools, the key factors that determine whether they work for you are motivation and how effectively you use them.

    I've used language tapes and Mp3's in the past to help me learn languages well enough to get by on holiday, and to revise languages I've learnt in classes... I can't speak for anyone else, but they work quite well for me.

    It seems to me that mobile learning is simply the next step in using portable electronic devices for studying and revising when you're on the move.

    I also think that mobile devices make learning accessible for people who aren't able to attend classes for whatever reason (shift work, lack of provision, affordability & and such).


  • Peter Travis says:
    September 10, 2010

    Great post Karenne. Like Lindsay I love it when bloggers take us by surprise like this!

    Quick response before the school run. Is there money in it? Possibly. When we buy books we're not always buying books, are we? It's often 'hope', 'aspiration' 'lifesyle' etc. So I suppose many people will buy into this if the app does a good job of selling itself as such.

    Is it an effective way of studying?

    Well, what particularly caught my eye about your post was:

    "Sometimes people actually want to go about their lives: downtime is downtime, travel time is travel time and they don't actually want their devices to take over their entire lives... "

    This subject has surfaced several times, most recently on the subject of 'Attention' on Scott Thornbury's blog:

    As Alex said above, studying is all about commitment. If someone wants to learn they'll do it in any way that's available including using their mobile phones, iPads, laptops. But this stuff also offers so many distractions for those who don't have that level of commitment or single-mindedness. I studied on a correspondence course many years ago and know only too well how committed you have to be to do self-study. Without putting aside one or two hours 'study time' I would have struggled to keep up with the courses or achieve the grades I was hoping for.

    Mobile phones etc merge all these 'times' into a mish-mash of different activities. I can't help wondering how all this affects our ability to pay attention to the task in hand.

    The dedicated learner will manage their time efficiently and use all the tools available to do the job of learning what they need to learn. I'm just concerned about all those people who don't have that level of dedication.

    What do others think?

    Apologies for any typos ... no time to proofread!!!

  • rliberni says:
    September 10, 2010

    Hi Karenne great post! As a proponent of mobile devices in ELT I do hope you are wrong! I feel personally that it is mostly a tool (and I might say quite a powerful one for delivering language)however, for certain niche groups it could be the best or only option. Horses for courses?

  • Peter Travis says:
    September 10, 2010

    Hi again
    As a follow on from my previous post just came across this on the subject of emails (via @userfocus on Twitter). See Number 4: 'It takes 64 seconds to recover from an email'

  • Michael Stout says:
    September 11, 2010

    Karenne thank you for this interesting and entertaining post. I laughed out loud SO many times. Good thing no one's in the office today.
    Despite agreeing with Darren's observations to some degree, I'm basically with you on this. I have the iPhone application for kanji flashcard study, which is now defunct. Gotta admit, I haven't used it much. Might use these kind of apps more if I had an iPad. In any case, few of my students have smart phones, and even the one's that do have them use them mostly for e-mail, playing games, listening to music, and ringing their mates. They, like you, think downtime is downtime. For them, even English conversation is STUDY and it's not something they want to do in their downtime.
    My colleague Clair Taylor wrote an excellent paper on an action research project she did regarding MALL. Here's the link: Setting up a MALL/CALL Tracked Self-study Component to a Course Let me know if you have trouble downloading the pdf. I can send it to you.


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