Mobility in Learning: The Feasibility of Encouraging Language Learning on Smartphones

Keith Barrs, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Barrs, K. (2011). Mobility in learning: The feasibility of encouraging language learning on smartphones. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(3), 228-233.

Paginated PDF version

Technology can be defined as anything which humans have created to shape their environment, from individual tools used in daily life to the systems and institutions which guide and define our societies. As such, technology is a “social and cultural phenomenon” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009, p. 158) which “cannot but influence the ways in which people learn” (Beetham & Sharpe, 2007, p. 6). Within language learning contexts, one of the main discussions about technology is in the integration, or normalisation (Chambers & Bax, 2006), of the technology into the language curriculum. This concept of normalisation is when the technology is “as invisible and natural as whiteboards and pens” (p. 466) and it is only with this invisibility that technology will “have found its proper place in language education” (p. 466).

With normalised technology in language learning contexts there is an unprecedented opportunity to re-define the nature of learning. Traditional ideas of classroom-based learning are giving way to modern ideas of ‘24/7 anywhere, anytime’ learning which is accessed and managed in part or in whole by the learners themselves, primarily on mobile devices (Kiernan & Aizawa, 2004; Motteram & Sharma, 2009). Indeed, as stated in “The Horizon Report” (Johnson, Smith, Willis, Levine, & Haywood, 2011), which looks at trends in learning technologies, “students’ easy and pervasive access to information outside of formal campus resources continues to encourage educators to take a careful look at the ways we can best serve learners” (p. 3).

The potential of smartphone integration into language learning

In the second decade of the 21st century, smartphones offer the greatest potential for such invisible integration of technological hardware into language learning. These devices are technologically superior to standard mobile phones, running on advanced operating systems such as iOS (Apple), Android (Google) and Symbian (Nokia) which allow for the use of high-resolution touch-screen interfaces and smartphone-specific applications.

As a mobile device they have “an affinity with movement between indoors and outdoors, across formal and informal settings, allowing learners to lead at least some of the way” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009, p. 164), and they are usually owned by the students themselves, at a relatively low-cost (Johnson et al, 2011). These characteristics mean that smartphones have the potential to become important devices not only in language learning in general but particularly in Self Access Language Learning (SALL). SALL is an approach to learning where the focus is on the promotion of learner autonomy by moving students away from dependence on the teacher and towards independence in managing one’s own learning (Gardner & Miller, 1999). Smartphones can greatly assist students in managing their learning by giving them mobile and independent access to materials and resources.

The motivation for smartphone research

The motivation for the research reported in this short article was the observation in my classrooms that smartphones were becoming more and more common, as a device owned by the students and regularly brought to the classes as a standard item of the students’ possessions. Through my own experience with a smartphone, I had come to recognise their potential language-learning applications such as their usefulness as voice recorders, the ability to photograph and store digital pictures of board work, and the proliferation in specific language learning applications (see Godwin-Jones, 2011), such as Cloudbank (a database of informal English usage), Anki (a flashcard programme) and Sounds (an app to help with pronunciation). It appeared that in my classes, smartphones had the best potential to become a normalised language learning technology, both inside and outside of the classroom, and this normalisation would bring with it opportunities not only for use in class but also for promotion of language learning activities that could be achieved beyond the classroom.

The Study

The areas of investigation

This observation led to the formation of two main research questions: (1) What is the extent of smartphone ownership among the students in my classes? (2) Do students use their smartphones for language learning? Although the research questions and the data which would arise from them are specific to my classes at one university in Japan, it is hoped that such research could encourage other teachers to conduct similar investigations into the feasibility of encouraging language learning with smartphones and to begin to discover applications and features of smartphones that could assist students in their language learning activities.

Investigating research question 1: The issue of normalisation

The concept of normalisation is an important one in discussions of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Bax (2003) states that normalisation of technology occurs when it “becomes invisible, embedded in everyday practice” and when the technology is “hardly even recognised as a technology, taken for granted in everyday life” (p. 3). It is then that the technology will be at its most useful in language learning contexts, because it can be used “without fear and inhibition, and equally without an exaggerated respect for what [it] can do” (p. 3). So if a normalised state of technology in language learning is considered as something which is both achievable and desirable (Bax, 2003, p. 24) then it is necessary to consider what piece of technology has the best potential for becoming normalised, the extent to which the normalisation is in progress and the opportunities afforded by the integration of this technology.

A questionnaire given out to my classes (80 students) at the end of the 2010/2011 academic year (January) showed that only 25% owned a smartphone. This showed that the technology was popular, but not yet normalised in wider society or a ‘natural’ part of the make-up of a student’s everyday possessions. The questionnaire will be administered in January 2012 to new classes of students to compare the rate of ownership and to see whether or not this technology is near normalisation. It is important to note that at the time of the questionnaire only 25% of students surveyed owned a smartphone but the other 75% owned a standard ‘non-smart’ mobile phone; data which is echoed in the Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2011) stating that “virtually 100% of university students worldwide come equipped with mobiles” (p. 13). The proliferation of smartphone hardware (such as the predicted release of the iPhone 5 in late 2011 and the acquisition of the Motorola company by Google in order to focus on mobile technologies), and the ever-increasing number of apps in stores such as iTunes (Apple) and Android Market (Google), suggests that mobile phones will be most likely updated to smartphones when contracts end or phones are lost/broken. That is unless a new technology is released in the intervening period which comes to replace the smartphone.

Investigating research question 2: Using a smartphone for language learning

According to The Horizon Report (2011), “people expect to be able to work, learn and study whenever and wherever they want” (p. 3). Smartphones can be a useful technology in this regard, especially in relation to learning, primarily because of their mobility but also due to the functions and applications available on the device. Smartphones allow anywhere, anytime access to an ever increasing amount of information and resources through functions and applications such as cellular calls, Instant Messaging services (IM), audio/video recording, wireless Internet access, social-networking applications, mobile dictionaries and flashcard programs.

However, it is important to acknowledge that ownership of a smartphone does not necessarily mean that they are being used for language learning purposes. It is therefore also important to investigate first of all whether or not students who own smartphones are (1) already using them for language learning or (2) willing to use them for language learning, and then to investigate the particular ways in which they can be used. From the initial questionnaire given to my 2010/2011 classes (80 students), in January 2011, I found that of the 20 students who owned smartphones, 15 had already used their smartphone in a way which they considered to be for language learning. Several of these uses are listed below:

  1. The camera was used to photograph board-work written up by the teacher, for example homework assignments and instructions.
  2. The built-in voice recorder on the iPhone was used to record a pair-presentation practice session and then this recording was self-reviewed for features that the teacher had said would be assessed, such as fluency and pronunciation.
  3. One student had heard about the ability to search in Google by voice with the Google App and wrote that checking to see if the app would respond correctly to her oral search terms was fun pronunciation practice for her.
  4. Several students said they used flashcard apps such as Gengo Flashcards which is an integrated app that allows you to create flashcards using your own photographs along with inputted text which can be spoken back to you in a range of languages.
  5. Some students mentioned they use English language news apps such as BBC, CNN, Discovery, Time and MTV.

Of the 5 students who answered that they felt they hadn’t yet used their smartphone for a specific language learning activity, 4 answered that they would be interested in learning about what functions/apps were good for this purpose. The remaining 1 student answered that he/she had no wish to use their smartphone for specific language learning activities because he/she didn’t like using technology in this way. This student said he/she enjoyed using textbooks for language learning and the smartphone was just for calling and simple Internet access in Japanese. The questionnaire will be administered again in January 2012 to find out if and how students are using their smartphones for language learning, and also to find out which functions and applications seem to be most popular among the students over time.

Although limited, this data indicates that even if some students already know how to use their smartphones for language learning, a key role for instructors can be to encourage and support all learners in how smartphones can be used for particular language activities. This can be done through classwork and homework which makes use of the devices and with the promotion of free/paid apps that teachers feel would be useful for the learners to use. Such promotion could be done through an ‘app of the week’ style segment of a lesson or in class/institution newsletters.


From the results of the first administration of the questionnaire, combined with what has been written on learners’ and educators’ blogs and in articles about smartphones in general society and specific learning environments, I predict that this on-going investigation will reveal that the number of students in my classes who own a smartphone will continue to rise, most likely rapidly because of the current popularity and availability of the devices across most mobile networks. I also predict that smartphones will become normalised in Japanese society within 1-2 years and potentially be readily available to all students for use both in and out of the language learning classroom. I anticipate that the research will also help reveal in what ways smartphones are already being used for language learning, which can assist teachers in encouraging and supporting smartphone use by language students. Normalisation of this technology will help to re-define educational practices by giving more opportunities for students to access and manage their own learning, with the guidance and pedagogical support of the teachers.

About the Contributor

Keith Barrs is an English instructor at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. His primary research interests are in the field of sociolinguistics and World Englishes, with a particular focus on the English-based vocabulary integrated into the Japanese lexicon. He is also interested in the application of technology to classroom practices, particularly the opportunities for linking the inside and outside of the classroom through the time-and-space independence offered by digital technologies. 


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