Why mobile phones for learning?

SALSA is exploring how and where people use their mobile phones for language learning, and more specifically, smartphones. But why are we thinking about smartphones?

In the MASELTOV project, the Open University has been part of a consortium exploring how smartphones can be used to help recent, low income immigrants to the EU with language learning and social inclusion.  Our colleagues in the Open University of Catalonia  have carried out research to find out about smartphone usage by this audience. In a study of 234 respondents, 80% owned smartphones. Of these, 94% had downloaded one or more apps. As you might imagine, the people responding to the survey used their phones for a wide variety of reasons, but “translating words you don’t understand” was very popular: 69%, with a further 19% saying that they don’t but would like to. Other key uses included social networking (83%), taking photos (82%) and searching for addresses (72%).  Our colleagues carried out a second, in-depth set of interviews with Latin American Spanish speakers in London, and found further evidence to suggest smartphones are widely used by recent immigrants, and central to making sense of their new home town. Keeping in contact with friends, finding their way round, and learning the host language were all identified as important uses of their phones.

Using a smartphone to help translate words on a job advert

Given this research, we were keen to explore further how people use their smartphones for language learning. It’s clear that smartphones are an integral part of daily living for many people, and that they are powerful enough to support a range of learning tools. Most of the major online language learning companies provide a mobile phone version of their software, but as a colleague, Lucy Norris, working on the Mobile Pedagogy for English Language Teaching project has pointed out, people use a whole range of apps for language learning, not just language learning apps. Facebook, for example, is a great place for people to practice chatting to their friends in an informal text environment. So the SALSA team is keen to explore what people use in more detail.   In particular, we’re interested to understand where people use their phones, and whether resources triggered in particular places might be useful. Language learning educators see context-specific learning as powerful: learning vocabulary about travelling while you are at the bus station for example. Smartphones would appear to be a highly suitable platform for testing the value of this kind of learning, and we’ll be exploring their use by adult language learners over the coming months.

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