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Are Smartphones Useful For Vocabulary Learning? An Appraisal

by Neil Ballantyne

June 13, 2011


by Neil Ballantyne

June 13, 2011

“Patterns in the data emerged that showed that English was being acquired through the use of apps in general and social networking in particular. The opportunity to have some language-specific apps in a device that is always carried around was not lost on the participants.”

Hong Kong is at the leading edge of smartphone penetration — 58% ownership compared to North America’s 41%, according to recent reports. In Hong Kong it is not unusual to be on the MTR (the local subway system) and be surrounded by commuters, each and every one of them glued to either an iPhone or, increasingly, an Android device.

With Hong Kong trying to position itself as “Asia’s World City,” language learning is a common pastime. Despite Hong Kong only having a population of seven million, it is one of the highest consumers of language learning apps in the world. In fact, Hong Kong is comparable in this respect to the whole of Thailand or Saudi Arabia — the other large markets for mobile language learning applications.

Vocabulary acquisition and mobile learning: a good match?

When learning a language, vocabulary is perhaps the most important element for learners to acquire. Without a sufficient vocabulary, it is difficult to convey a lot of meaning, and most learners acknowledge this. Teachers, however, often leave this responsibility to the student and most vocabulary learning takes place outside the classroom. Mobile learning provides a wonderful opportunity for learners in this respect.

The key advantages of mobile phone technologies are well documented, especially the possibility for “anywhere, anytime” learning, of transcending the barriers of a classroom, and having access to an “always on” device. Mobile phones provide an efficient use of waiting time for spontaneous and fun just-in-time learning activities. These aspects of mobile learning encourage high-level learning, as the users are able to apply the information right away — something particularly useful for language learning where repetition and use are key to long term retention.

To find out more how language learners use and perceive mobile phones for education, I carried out a small-scale case study with learners of English in Hong Kong. As the case study progressed it became clear that language learning was taking place aided by the tools afforded by the phones. However, it was not just the obvious referential tools that provided learning opportunities and specific language learning tools; there were strong links between learning and social networking tools as well as incidental learning through other non-language specific apps.

The case study

Learner profile

Three adult learners of English were chosen from within the British Council, Hong Kong. Table 1 shows the profiles of these volunteers.


Table: Learner profiles




English level (CEFR)



Works in accounting department of an auditing firm




Shipping clerk in a manufacturing company




Full-time student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University studying Business English and part-time staff member of student services, British Council Hong Kong (administrative staff).


*Pseudonyms are used to protect the students’ identities.


Data collection and analysis

I asked participants to attend two interviews in order to keep a record of their app usage with reference to vocabulary learning. The resulting data was analyzed using a coding framework first established from categories used by Lu (2008) and Clough et al (2008) (see the References section at the end of this article).


Case 1: Stephen

Stephen chose an iPhone because he saw so many people using these phones on the MTR that he “wanted to experience this phone.” Stephen uses apps mainly when commuting, sometimes at home, but never in the office or on campus. Stephen sees his phone very much as a substitute for his laptop or desktop when those tools are not available. He mentioned reasons such as screen size and Internet speed as reasons for not using his phone when other means of accessing the Internet were available. He sees his phone as a tool to kill time more than as a tool for helping him learn.

Stephen’s learning was less evident from the use of the apps as compared to the other two participants, possibly because of his higher proficiency level. He did undertake some focused language practice (specifically, listening practice), using the British Council’s listening apps (LearnEnglish Elementary and Big City). He claimed these helped to improve his own pronunciation through hearing native speakers. Other language practice was incidental through the use of social networking tools such as Facebook.

Case 2: Eric

Eric has always had top-of-the-range phones and thinks the iPhone is the most useful phone because of the apps available. As well as using apps when commuting and at home, Eric uses a lot of apps at the office — the Internet is blocked in his office so apps are a way of killing time. He claims to use English learning apps every day; from his interviews and diaries these were limited to a translation app (Free Translator) and a bilingual dictionary app (Powerword).

After having apps suggested to him, Eric did spend some time using them for specific language practice by listening to Podcasts with a language-learning focus. Other learning he mentioned was either referential, through translators and dictionaries, or through the conversational use of social networking or instant messaging apps.

Case 3: Winnie

Winnie claims to use apps a lot at home and in the office, although not when commuting. Winnie’s diary showed that she consistently spent the longest time using apps compared to the other participants, spending at times up to thirty minutes using one app. As another iPhone user, the Free Translator app and a bilingual dictionary app were the sole apps Winnie had specifically for language learning before the case study.

Apart from the referential usage of these apps, Winnie did not use the phone for any specific language practice. Where she did specifically mention gaining vocabulary knowledge, it was mostly incidental learning through other apps — either through social networking in English or using apps with an English user interface which helped her learn words.

Topics Covered

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