The Potential Impact of Mobile-assisted Language Learning on
Women and Girls in Africa: A Brief Literature Review
University of Massachusetts (USA)
Mobile-assisted language learning (MALL) is a burgeoning area of study in the field of e-learning. The
growing ubiquity of mobile phones has spawned studies, mainly with university students in the developed
world, which examine the positive impact that mobile phones can have on language learning. Although
mobile-assisted language learning is currently imperfect, scientists and instructional designers are working
to eliminate the shortcomings of MALL so that language learning through mobile-assisted language
learning is more effective and unbound from a traditional classroom.
Framed in the underexplored context of women and girls in Africa, this article reviews the barriers to
mobile-assisted language learning, discusses the possibility of mobile-assisted language learning given
these barriers, and hypothesizes the impact of mobile-assisted language learning on the lives of women
and girls in Africa. The author finds that the literature review suggests a strong case to investigate the
potential of mobile-assisted language learning for women and girls in Africa because of the benefits that
could be derived from anytime, anywhere language education.
Current barriers to mobile phone access and usage for African women and girls
Before mobile-assisted language learning can take place, women and girls in Africa need to be able to
access and use mobile phones. The scarcity of studies that survey the impact of MALL in Africa is
undoubtedly due to the challenges inherent with utilizing technology there. In order to confront the issues
preventing the implementation of MALL in Africa, it is helpful to first list and describe the issues present.
In Africa many areas are frequently without electricity or not wired for electricity at all (The Earth Institute,
2004). When Africans do have access to electricity in their home, it is often very expensive to use. When
using an electrically-powered mobile phone with long talk times, the need for frequent recharging can
quickly add up. A common practice in Africa when electricity is not obtainable in a person’s place of
residence is to travel, sometimes long distances (and the trip itself can cost money), to have it recharged
at another location where a recharging fee may also apply (Hafkin, Untitled - Gender and ICT, 2009).
Cost of Calls and Ownership
Given that the monthly income for poor and rurally-located Africans can be extremely low, a three-minute
call that can cost up to $1.56 (USD) is a small fortune to spend on mobile phone services (Rose, 2002).
In addition to cost-prohibitive call rates, users lose money when poor network service in their area takes
call credit when trying to connect a call, even if the call is unsuccessfully connected (Buskens & Webb,
2009; Gillwald, Milek, & Stork, 2010). When mobile phone call credit is lost in this manner, there is no
recourse for the caller to recover the calling fee, and a call that was once $1.56 could easily become
double or triple the amount.
In Africa, a call made with a mobile phone can be done either through private ownership or public
borrowing. Private ownership of a mobile phone poses another financial barrier in that, depending on the
country in Africa, the fee to purchase a mobile phone can be the equivalent of half a family’s average
monthly income, (Aker & Mbiti, 2010).
Mobile Handset Languages
When a mobile handset and its menus are only available in “world” languages that they do not know how
to read or speak, many mobile phone features remain largely inaccessible for African users.
When technology is transferred from one world region to another (in this case North America, Europe, or
Asia to Africa), the transfers should be made in a way that enables the recipients of the technology to use
all of the technological features without barriers to entry. Poor planning and design develops users who
are only partly capable of using the imported technology. An example from Ethiopia explains this
language barrier further: “As the majority of the people of the country are not familiar with the English
language or other languages that are used on mobile phones, we observe many people can’t do a routine
operation like save a friends [sic] name and number” (Sisay, 2007).
Women and girls in developing countries have institutionalized difficulties that prevent them from entering
into realms that are traditionally believed to be appropriate only for males. Ownership and usage of ICTs,
which includes mobile phones, is one of the “male only” realms.
Simple technology like a radio may be fully masculine. I remember my father had a tiny radio in the 1970s
that my mother had no leisure to listen to, nor was she allowed to join to sit around as men did outside the
house. […] By hindsight, it made me think that radios, TVs and computers are masculine assets and
microwaves and cookers are feminine. (Njeru, 2009)
Interpersonal relationships also play into women and girl’s usage of a mobile phone. Jealous husbands or
boyfriends have suspected that their wives or girlfriends are using their mobile phones to communicate
with paramours (Hafkin, Untitled - Gender and ICT, 2009). Problems a woman has with her romantic
partner regarding mobile phone usage can destabilize homes, with a woman typically giving up the phone
before she gives up an important relationship.
Women and girls in Africa are responsible for the majority of house chores, are obligated to raise any
children in the household, and if they are able they must also work a job to help support their family. Given
these conditions, female responsibilities in Africa do not leave much time for accessing and using a mobile
phone. “One of the barriers to the uptake of mobile phone technology, […] is their [women’s] lack
of time to learn the technology and apply it” (Kinoti, 2010).
Finally, because more women than men live in rural areas in developing countries (Huyer & Sikoska,
2003), factors such as reduced buying power owed to limited income opportunities and the cost to
maintain ownership of a mobile phone prevents women from accessing and using the technology.
Breaking down barriers: The potential of MALL for women and girls in Africa
Although there are a number of barriers, some of which may never be overcome, to mobile-assisted
language learning for women and girls in Africa, there are still many workable solutions that can decrease
the number of barriers to obtaining mobile-assisted language education.
High-Tech Learning for Low Cost
Electricity and the cost of calls and ownership of mobile phones are two barriers to accessing and using
mobile phones for MALL that are starting to disappear. The majority of the phones currently on the
market in Africa are electrically-powered but a cost-effective alternative may soon be more widely
available. Mobile phone makers such as Samsung and the ZTE Corporation began rolling out solar-
powered mobile phones as early as 2009 (Voice of America News, 2009). By placing the back of the
mobile phone in the sun, the phone can be recharged without the need for electricity. The only drawback
is that recharge times can run upwards of 12 hours in the sun just to get an hour of talk time (Ngo, 2009).
Mobile phone manufacturers such as Nokia and Google are responding to the demand for mobile phones
with low-cost models that are more readily affordable (Hafkin, Untitled - Gender and ICT, 2009). Placing a
call with a mobile phone is still expensive, depending on the country, but SMS messages remain cheap to
send and receive. As recent mobile phone statistics show, even with the cost to make calls and the cost
to own a mobile phone, access to this technology is growing in Africa and reaching communities that were
once not served at all (Dogbevi, 2010).
Circumventing Language Hegemony
Mobile headset languages may soon no longer pose a barrier to accessing and using mobile phones.
Andualem Sisay’s aforementioned article from Ethiopia goes on to describe how three Ethiopian college
students designed software for the mobile handset that uses the Amharic alphabet for text input and
output on certain parts of the mobile phone (Sisay, 2007). If these college students’ software design finds
success in implementation on mobile phones in Ethiopia then mobile phone software could reasonably be
manufactured to accommodate other languages that do not use or have letters that are not found in the
Latin alphabet. An additional example of the promising possibility to overcome the mobile handset
language barrier for African women and girls is Tostan and Rapid SMS’s work with the Jokko Initiative in
Senegal. The pilot activities of these two organizations that are being conducted with Senegalese women
have been successful in part because the organizations adapted the mobile phone environment to support
characters found in the alphabets of the languages that the research participants speak. With the mobile
handset language adaptation, these women are quickly learning how to use the mobile phones for
communication and literacy-building activities (RapidSMS, 2010).
The potential impact of MALL on women and girls in Africa
While MALL may not be superior to classroom instruction with a competent language teacher, it can
provide an effective opportunity to begin learning a language now given that the problems of teacher
shortages and a dearth of well-trained teachers in Africa do not have any immediate solutions available
(Education International, 2008). Women and girls in Africa should not have to wait for a language
education if a viable solution in MALL is presently available.
The ability for women and girls in Africa to gain a language education in an out-of-school setting is well
within reach with mobile-assisted language learning. First language education can help build learner
literacy, providing a solid background in language learning that can later be applied to second language
learning. With eventual second language education, the chance for the millions of women and girls in
Africa who speak a less-commonly taught African language to access information available on the web in
an International Language of Wider Communication is a real possibility. Because the content of the
Internet is primarily from countries on the North American and European continents (Warschauer, 2003,
Chapter 4), the ability of women and girls to access web content is more likely if the user knows how to
read and understand the language(s) that web content is written in. African women and girls who are
literate in their L1 and eventually obtain proficiency in an “official” language of the country they live in will
also have better prospects of attending and having academic success in secondary and postsecondary
educational institutions, if their financial situation permits, since the majority of institutes of higher
education in Africa use an “official” language as the medium of instruction (Teferra & Knight, 2008, p. 70).
The betterment of the lives of women and girls in Africa benefits men and boys, too. In 2003 Sophia
Huyer delivered a report that explains the links between gender and development. Huyer describes how
countries that help maintain women in an impoverished state have difficulties to overcome poverty across
populations within their borders. Educating women and girls is not only the right thing to do but it can also
pay dividends that no one can put a price on. “Educated women are better able to engage in productive
activities, find formal sector employment, earn higher incomes and experience greater returns from
schooling. Investments in female education therefore tend to increase the incomes of families, with
benefits for men, women, and children” (Huyer, 2003, pp. 102-103).
African women and girls who live in rural areas that are served by mobile phone towers could use the
benefits of literacy-building through mobile-assisted language learning to improve aspects of their lives
other than the ability to read. In a 2006 study conducted by Dr. Lantana Usman with a group of rural
women in northern Nigeria, the researcher puts forth the idea that mother tongue literacy can build
women’s self-esteems, enable women to help their children with language learning activities, improve
women’s communicative competence, and empower women to confidently interact with their government
and government officials (Usman, 2006, p. 19). In this case, the research participants also enjoyed
having the option to eventually learn English and Hausa because these were both languages of trade in
Nigeria that could facilitate the women’s abilities to conduct and expand business with both new and old
clients (Usman, 2006, p. 23).
The next steps
For far too long exploration of the potential of mobile-assisted language learning has been neglected in
developing countries and particularly in Africa. If the international community truly endeavors to grant
educational opportunities for all, then governments and non-governmental organizations must lead the
charge for providing access to education. Although the challenges and barriers associated with operating
in a developing country context can be difficult to overcome when technology is involved, the women and
girls of Africa deserve the privilege of educational access that is designed with their needs and situations
While in the developed world we have ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, African women and girls
remain ‘digital neophytes’ or ‘digital non-users’ in this time of rapid technological advancement. But this
gap can potentially be closed with language education delivered through mobile-assisted language
learning. More research on the provision of language education through mobile-assisted language
learning for the contexts of the majority of women and girls in Africa is an investment that will yield
benefits for generations to come. The race to the top starts by extending a helping hand to those at the
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