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.

Commonalities between the three cases

Social uses

“Fun” was consistently referenced as a reason for using apps. Users mentioned using their iPhone and exploring apps as a social event to do with friends. For example, Stephen spent a lot of the time reading the cartoons in Big City with his girlfriend.

All learners chose to use the English version of the social networking app Facebook, with Winnie actually saying she made this decision in order to help her learn English. Stephen’s English is good enough for him to be able to communicate comfortably with his friends in English; Eric and Winnie less so, yet they choose to use English as their language of choice for posting communications. On exploration, the main reason given for this was the difficulty in writing on the iPhone with Chinese characters; users commented on how poor character detection was.

Locational use

One consistent theme between the three is that they all used apps on their iPhone at home, and for Eric and Winnie that was the most common place to use apps. All participants commute for at least two hours a day which provided an opportunity for app use, although it was only Stephen’s results that showed travel as the most likely time to use apps. All used apps in the classroom and in the workplace.

Language-focused app usage

All three participants used either native or Web-based translation and dictionary tools. Language learning apps such as LearnEnglish Elementary and Big City were suggested to the users and were used to practice listening skills, especially when commuting.


Song and Fox (2008) identified seven main categories of use of mobile devices for incidental vocabulary: referential, data collection, situated, constructive, reflective, explorative, and conversing. The same categorizations provide useful concepts that offer a valid description of the learners’ experiences.

Referential use

The most common learning uses of smartphones in this study were for referential learning with dictionary use and translation use. These were used both individually and collaboratively. Winnie and Eric’s teacher commented how they used their phones during class when they needed a translation, often sharing the task of seeking a translation.

There was also a degree of incidental learning using other apps that we can classify as referential, although not language specific, such as music detection services and fashion and photography general interest apps.

Data collection

Data collection is a major affordance of a smartphone, and Stephen made some use of MyWordBook which has functionality to create personalized flashcards with definitions, example sentences, images, sound files, etc. The act of creation of such a flashcard can help learners memorize the word.

Situated use

Situated use refers to spontaneous, personal, informal, and situated learning. Eric and Winnie have both been observed using their phones for vocabulary acquisition reasons within the classroom. This study showed how the learners would fill (or kill) time by using the language apps, whether this was at home, in the office, or travelling.

Constructive uses

This use refers to constructing knowledge. Stephen showed how the fact that Podcasting apps such as LearnEnglish Elementary, which includes the voices of native speakers, helped him build knowledge about the pronunciation of vocabulary. The use of referential applications in situations where there was a knowledge gap was evident in all the learners.

Reflective uses

This refers to the learner engaging with the app to facilitate deep learning. Stephen showed a level of reflection with his comments about improving his pronunciation and also by immersing himself in the cultural aspects of blogs that form part of the social interaction with LearnEnglish Elementary. However, we would need further research over a greater period of time to probe whether the learners were engaging in reflective use.

Conversing uses

This refers to “social interactions that lead to learning mediated by the mobile device” (Song & Fox, 2008). The use of the social network sites providing solid informal learning was evident across all users. These uses included social networking applications such as Facebook, instant messaging services such as IM+ and a microblogging application (Weibo). These apps allowed both productive (writing) and receptive (reading) practice and meant that English was being used as a medium of communication between the participants and their peers despite being Cantonese speakers.

Winnie talked of learning phrases from a friend’s blog and then making a point of using them herself when writing English on her phone. All participants talked of using apps with English user interfaces and choosing to use English over Chinese. Even if English usage was for a pragmatic reason (users finding it easier to type in English), this immersive behavior can promote language learning.


This research started out to investigate the learner experience of iPhone users with regard to the vocabulary learning apps. Upon analysis of the data, my initial focus on vocabulary apps became less specific, as 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. Participant use of referential apps such as bilingual dictionaries, translation apps, data collection tools, and listening tools strengthened the just-in-time learning capabilities of these phones. However, it was the incidental learning and shared consumption of apps that showed the biggest opportunities for learning.


Clough, G., Jones, A.C., McAndrew P. & Scanlon E. (2008): "Informal learning with PDAs and smartphones" in Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24 pp 359 – 371

Lu, M. (2008): “Effectiveness of Vocabulary Learning Via Mobile Phone” in Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24 pp 515-525

Song Y. & Fox, R. (2008): “Integrating Incidental Vocabulary Learning Using PDAs into Academic Studies: Undergraduate Student Experiences” in Lecture Notes in Computer Science 5169:2008 pp 238 - 249