Use of Smartphone Applications in English
Language Learning—A Challenge for Foreign
Jaroslav Kacetl and Blanka Klímová*
Department of Applied Linguistics, Faculty of Informatics and Management, University of Hradec Králové,
Rokitanského 62, 500 03 Hradec Králové, Czech Republic
Received: 25 June 2019; Accepted: 9 July 2019; Published: 11 July 2019
At present, hardly any younger person can imagine life without mobile technologies. They
use them on a daily basis, including in language learning. Such learning supported with mobile
devices is called mobile learning, which seems beneﬁcial especially thanks to the unique features of
mobile applications (e.g., interactivity, ubiquity, and portability) and teachers’ encouragement and
feedback. The purpose of this review study is to explore original, peer-reviewed English studies from
2015 to April 2019 and to determine whether mobile applications used in the learning of English as
a foreign language are beneﬁcial and/or eﬀective. The methods are based on a literature review of
available sources found on the research topic in two acknowledged databases: Web of Science and
Scopus. Altogether, 16 original journal studies on the research topic were detected. The results reveal
that mobile learning is becoming a salient feature of education as it is a great opportunity for foreign
language learning. Its key beneﬁts are as follows: the enhancement of the learner’s cognitive capacity,
the learner’s motivation to study in both formal and informal settings, the learner’s autonomy and
conﬁdence, as well as the promotion of personalized learning, helping low-achieving students to
reach their study goals. Although mobile learning seems to be eﬀective overall, it is desirable to
design, plan and implement it with caution, according to students’ needs, and to deliver multiple
language skills in authentic learning environments.
Keywords: mobile apps; mobile learning; English learning; use; beneﬁts
Nowadays, mobile technologies and mobile applications (apps) are becoming an indispensable
part of learning, including foreign language learning [
]. This recent methodology of their use is called
mobile learning (m-learning). M-learning further expands e-learning by promoting independent and
active learning and by turning educational institutions into 24/7, no-barrier learning centers [
]. In a
similar vein, Klimova [
] speaks of Mobile Assisted Language Learning (MALL) as a new subdivision
of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Leis et al. [
] even suggest a new acronym for
Smartphone Assisted Language Learning, SPALL, as the smartphone oﬀers capabilities far beyond the
traditional mobile phone.
The key features of m-learning, such as personalized learning, independent on time and place,
collaboration with peers and teachers in both formal and informal settings, ubiquity and interactivity
of mobile devices, make m-learning eﬃcient [1,3].
Furthermore, research in MALL shows that using mobile phones and their apps seems to be
beneﬁcial for foreign language learning, especially thanks to their unique features (e.g., interactivity,
ubiquity, or portability) and teachers’ encouragement and feedback [5–8].
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179; doi:10.3390/educsci9030179 www.mdpi.com/journal/education
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 2 of 9
However, Klimova [
] mentions several pitfalls of MALL; namely, students’ potential lack of
attention caused by mobile phone multi-tasking, the lack of apps suitable for English for Speciﬁc
Purposes (ESP) and at various levels of proﬁciency. Among the downsides are also problems with
Internet access and connection, a small screen size, or a lack of face-to-face contact. In addition,
] reports that the feedback function in the mobile apps is limited. In relation to foreign
language learning apps, Heil et al. [
] state that most of the apps are decontextualized, i.e., they
concentrate on individual words rather than on authentic speech production, including all four
language skills (speaking, writing, listening and reading). They also emphasize the implementation of
so-called adaptive learning, which tries to meet the unique needs of an individual through just-in-time
feedback, pathways, and resources (rather than providing a one-size-ﬁts-all learning experience) [
Furthermore, research shows that MALL is especially eﬀective in vocabulary learning [
vocabulary can be split into smaller segments, which is suitable for designing content in smartphones.
Currently, the practice in the use of mobile apps in language learning is that they are mostly used
as a support in language acquisition. Therefore, the blended learning (BL) approach (a combination of
face-to-face instruction and online learning) is mostly implemented in relation to their use [
the BL approach appears to be more eﬀective than the use of only traditional instruction. In addition,
the BL approach is especially suitable for distant students, who due to their work commitments cannot
be involved in full-time English language study .
The purpose of this review study is to explore original, peer-reviewed English studies from 2015 to
April 2019 and to determine whether mobile apps used in the learning of English as a foreign language
are beneﬁcial and/or eﬀective. Thus, the research question is as follows:
Is the use of mobile apps beneﬁcial and/or eﬀective, in the learning of English as a foreign language?
(If so, why, in what ways, and how?)
The methods are based on a literature review of available sources found on the research topic in
two acknowledged databases: Web of Science and Scopus. The search period was conducted for studies
published between January 2015 and April 2019, since several review studies [
] on this topic
had been published before. The searched collocated keywords were as follows: eﬀectiveness AND
mobile apps AND English learning, eﬀect AND mobile learning AND English learning, eﬀectiveness
AND use of mobile applications AND English language learning. The keywords were combined and
integrated in database and journal searches. The terms used were searched using ‘AND’ to combine
the keywords listed and using ‘OR’ to remove search duplication where possible. A backward search
was also conducted, i.e., references of retrieved articles were assessed for relevant articles that authors’
searches may have missed.
From the database/journal searches, 387 titles/abstracts were identiﬁed on the basis of the keywords.
More studies were identiﬁed in the database Web of Science (248 studies). In SCOPUS, it was only
139 studies. Another ﬁve articles were identiﬁed from other sources, usually from references of the
already detected articles. In addition, the authors performed a more speciﬁc search for only the
peer-reviewed original journal articles, thus excluding conference articles and review articles. This
generated altogether 190 original studies. After removing duplicates and titles/abstracts unrelated
to the research topic, 115 English-written studies remained. Of these, only 58 articles were relevant
for the research topic. These studies were investigated in full, and they were considered against the
following inclusion and exclusion criteria. The inclusion criteria were as follows:
•The period of the publishing of the article was limited from 1 January 2015 up to 30 April 2019;
•Only reviewed full-text studies in scientiﬁc journals in English were included;
•Only experimental/quasi-experimental studies were included;
The primary outcome focused on the association of the eﬀectiveness of the use of smartphone
apps in the learning of English as a foreign language.
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 3 of 9
The exclusion criteria were as follows:
Conference papers, e.g., [
], review studies, e.g., [
], and original papers not focusing on
smartphone apps for the learning of English as a second language, e.g., [17,18], were excluded.
Based on these criteria, 16 studies were eventually involved into the ﬁnal analysis. Figure 1below
illustrates the selection procedure.
Educ. Sci. 2019, 9, x FOR PEER REVIEW 3 of 9
The exclusion criteria were as follows:
Conference papers, e.g., [7,8,16], review studies, e.g., [1,3], and original papers not focusing on
smartphone apps for the learning of English as a second language, e.g., [17,18], were excluded.
Based on these criteria, 16 studies were eventually involved into the final analysis. Figure 1
below illustrates the selection procedure.
Figure 1. An overview of the selection procedure.
Records identified through database
searching (keywords in title)
(n = 387)
Additional records identified through
other sources (from references)
(n = 5)
Full-text articles assessed for
(n = 58)
Full-text articles excluded for
the following reasons:
Conference papers (n = 31).
Review studies (n = 5).
Papers with a different research
focus (n = 6).
Studies included in qualitative
(n = 16)
Records after including only peer-reviewed
original journal articles
(n = 190)
Records screened after removing duplicates
and irrelevant content of abstracts
(n = 115)
(n = 75)
Figure 1. An overview of the selection procedure.
Altogether, 16 original peer-reviewed journal articles on the research topic were detected. They
originated in eleven diﬀerent countries, namely, China, the Czech Republic, Iran, Japan, Lebanon,
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Turkey. However, the highest number of articles
(3) were written in Iran and Taiwan, followed by China (2).
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 4 of 9
The majority of the 16 original reviewed texts agree that mobile learning, or m-learning, is
becoming a salient feature of education (e.g., [
]), as it is a great opportunity and an immense step
forward (e.g., [
]) and should therefore be supported (e.g., [
]), albeit with caution (e.g., [
and only as a supporting tool (e.g., ).
It is noteworthy that students usually report that they like m-learning [
]. This view is supported
by other authors who also maintain that using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets in education
is gladly accepted by learners (e.g., [
]). M-learning is sometimes used in order to help
low-achieving students and motivate them (and others) to spend more time studying outside the
classroom (e.g., ).
Teachers may use either some already established social networking platforms (WhatsApp,
WeChat, Telegram, Line), or special applications for learning English (Fun Dubbing), or they may
follow guidelines in creating tailor-made language learning apps (e.g., ).
As regards language skills practiced by means of m-learning, some research aimed at speciﬁc ones
such as writing (e.g., [20,27]), speaking , vocabulary [3,21,23,25], listening , and reading .
The key ﬁndings of the selected studies are described in more detail below. The research was
conducted mostly among secondary school and university students.
The mobile Internet has, according to Jin and Yan [
], distinct features, namely, convenience,
portability, immediacy, orientation, accuracy, and sensitivity, which makes it much diﬀerent from the
desktop Internet. Jin and Yan [
] maintain that the eﬀect of mobile learning is good as all students
improve. On the other hand, some teachers as well as parents still resist to mobile learning as they do
not understand it. Moreover, the teacher needs to invest a lot of time, and students lack self-conﬁdence
to ask questions .
Jamaldeen et al. [
] consider mobile learning to be one of the major developing areas in education.
They tested a mobile-based learning application, and they claim that the users showed positive attitudes
towards m-learning and found it useful. On the other hand, their ﬁndings suggest that m-learning
would be more eﬀective as a supporting medium of learning rather than as the primary medium
(Jamaldeen et al., 2018).
Çelik and Yavuz [
] maintain that mobile apps help integrate smartphones into radically changing
education, which is now more individualized, ubiquitous, learner-centered, and even uncontrolled.
The authors studied the eﬀectiveness of mobile apps in vocabulary instruction, both contextual and
literal. They conclude that mobile apps are eﬀective in language learning, but they warn that their
implementation must be done in a guided and controlled way as some apps are not designed by experts.
Kuimova et al. [
] view m-learning as an important step forward and a valuable support to
traditional learning. Their paper looks into the beneﬁts and challenges of m-learning. According to
these authors, m-learning enhances cognitive activity, encourages the learner’s independence, helps
individualize learning, and increases the learner’s motivation. On the other hand, among its downsides
are, e.g., small screens, potential external interference, a highly addictive as well as distractive nature,
or the fact that some teachers are diﬃcult to convince about m-learning’s potential. Kuimova et al. [
conducted research into using WhatsApp for learning English, and they conclude that mobile phones
can be used for learning as students usually take a positive stance with regard to m-learning.
] also looked into the eﬀectiveness of WhatsApp in language teaching and claims that
teaching writing skills by means of WhatsApp was more eﬀective than through regular instruction.
Moreover, it increased the learners’ levels of motivation. The author states that the WhatsApp tool
creates a positive social environment, encouraging a sense of belonging to a community or a team
with other learners as well as the teacher. It also reduces anxiety. Therefore, the utilization of mobile
devices in education should be seen as vital.
] claims that WhatsApp with its mobile instant messaging shows the potential to
improve the student’s writing skills in the second language and activate their involvement. In addition,
WhatsApp seems to be accepted among students.
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 5 of 9
Khansarian-Dehkordi and Ameri-Golestan [
] examined the way mobile learning inﬂuences
both acquisition and retention of vocabulary and concluded that even though the traditional method
brings beneﬁts, the results of those who used mobile phones or tablet PCs with a social networking
application Line were signiﬁcantly better, and these students themselves noticed their improvement.
Nonetheless, the authors emphasize that technology cannot replace the physical classroom. Mobile
devices should rather be used to encourage learners to interact with each other in the virtual world
and create a fun environment for mutual learning.
] studied the eﬀect of an app called English Fun Dubbing (EFD). The author claims that
EFD supports the student’s language learning autonomy by providing them with an opportunity to
practice by themselves at their own pace. Zhang [
] concluded that a reasonable choice of a suitable
application not only enhances learning but also makes students use mobile devices in more reasonable
ways than they usually do.
According to Klimova [
], research indicates that mobile apps help develop all language skills,
primarily retaining new vocabulary, and the use of these apps also increases students’ motivation to
study. Using the apps also boosts conﬁdence, class participation, and students’ tendency to use mobile
devices in education .
] emphasizes the importance of motivation to learn English. The author believes in
using mobile game-based language learning. Nevertheless, the apps should be selected based on
students’ interests, needs and level.
Hwang et al. [
] conducted research into using video clips with either full captions, i.e., showing
all the words in the same language as the audio output; partial captions, i.e., showing only key words
in the same language; or partial captions with subtitles, i.e., key words in the language of audio output
(captions) and their translations (subtitles) into the language of the students. Concerning learning
motivation, the students learning with full captions showed signiﬁcantly higher motivation than
those learning with partial captions and subtitles. The authors also deem it important to diﬀerentiate
between active-style and reﬂective-style students. The latter prefer learning by thinking to learning by
interacting with videos.
Naderi and Akrami [
] investigated the eﬀect of reading comprehension instruction by means of
Telegram (Messenger) groups. According to these authors, online instruction has become popular, and
their results suggest that students prefer the mobile phone as the best tool for reading short texts.
Similarly, Aghajani [
] looked into the inﬂuence of m-learning on cooperative learning (two or
more people learning together) and compared face-to-face instruction of English writing with that by
means of Telegram. They conclude that Telegram makes the learning environment more meaningful
and it helps improve students’ writing performance. In addition, Telegram, as the authors claim,
actively encourages a cooperative environment and increases motivation.
Leis et al. [
] focus mainly on the eﬀects that using smartphones in class has on students’ autonomy,
by which is meant their study outside the classroom. Their ﬁndings show that students encouraged to
use smartphones in class tend to study more outside the classroom and are more autonomous learners
than those who are restricted from using smartphones in class. Therefore, the authors strongly advise
teachers to allow their students to use smartphones for language learning in class.
Hao et al. [
] studied how m-learning may beneﬁt weak students of English as a foreign language.
They contend that low-achieving students, often marginalized in class, may regain the sense of
accomplishment with the help of eﬀective mobile technology applications. Similarly, most other
students also improve.
On reading these selected articles, there is a feeling that not only language learning and teaching
but education as such is on the threshold of a profound change. It may seem that the traditional model
is on the wane (e.g., [
]). The use of mobile devices in education seems to be on an inevitable
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 6 of 9
rise. The problem lies in the way they should be used. Therefore, it is vital to determine potential
advantages as well as drawbacks of m-learning utilization in education.
It seems to be true that the penetration of smartphones and the potential utilization of mobile
devices make m-learning a great opportunity. Most young and adult learners use smartphones all
the time. Teachers as well as their peers can approach them at almost any time. It may streamline
communication. Mobile devices can be used for storing study materials, which signiﬁcantly decreases
heavy loads that children have to carry on their backs. Moreover, the Internet enables the learner to
access target language content that they are interested in. For instance, if the student wants to study
geography, there are a lot of texts available as well as video clips on the subject. At the same time,
m-learning has become a major developing area in education. It is no coincidence that there are a lot of
teachers who have started using m-learning in their classes and researchers who conduct research into
it. Last but not least, the way that people live in the 21st century supports using mobile technologies
On the other hand, some apps used by learners are not designed by language experts. Moreover, it
seems that students should be guided and controlled in using language learning mobile apps for various
reasons, including the lack of self-conﬁdence in using new technologies or an unsuitable language
level of apps used for particular students. Other downsides of using smartphones in education could
be small screens, external interference as well as distraction, the addictive nature of smart devices, and
the sometimes unfavorable attitudes of some teachers and parents.
Some questions also remain to be answered about m-learning (see Table 1), including the following.
Should/will m-learning remain a supportive medium or become the primary one in education? Can we
really expect profound changes in education, including a paradigm change? If so, how to best prepare
for it? What new trends can be expected in m-learning? Is it better to create (a lot of) new apps or to
utilize already existing platforms? What is the best way to guide students in m-learning? It may also
be relevant to take into account whether the student prefer an active or reﬂective style of learning [
There are other review articles focusing on m-learning. The review article by Klimova [
15 original articles and the ﬁndings include the following facts. First, mobile apps are eﬀective in
developing all skills, particularly vocabulary. Second, students’ perceptions towards using mobile
technologies for language learning are positive. Third, students using mobile technologies for language
learning are more motivated to learn both inside and outside class. Klimova [
] also listed both beneﬁts
and limitations linked to using m-learning in language learning.
Another review by Hwang and Fu [
] had a wider scope and studied 93 papers, dividing their
research into two periods, i.e., 2007–2011 and 2012–2016. It uncovers the following trends. First, most
mobile-assisted language learning teaches English as a foreign/second language. Second, researchers’
attention was paid mainly to higher-education students, whereas pre-school children had rarely been
the subject of such studies. Third, research on vocabulary was the most common. Fourth, higher
order thinking, e.g., problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and communicative competence, only
became an important issue between 2012 and 2016, whereas prior to 2012 it had not appeared in the
reviewed articles at all. According to Hwang and Fu [
], earlier studies on m-learning usually focused
on teaching individual language skills, whereas nowadays it is more common to deliver multiple
language skills in authentic learning environments. The authors also maintain that most studies agree
on the eﬀectiveness of m-learning.
Thus, the answer to the research question is positive since the ﬁndings of this review study
reveal that there is a potential in the use of mobile apps. Moreover, the use of apps contributes
to the enhancement of the learner’s cognitive capacity, the learner’s motivation to study in both
formal and informal settings, the learner’s autonomy and conﬁdence, as well as the promotion
of personalized learning, helping low-achieving students to reach their study goals. However, to
achieve the eﬀectiveness of these apps, it is desirable to design, plan and implement them with caution,
according to students’ needs, and to deliver multiple language skills in authentic learning environments.
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 7 of 9
Table 1. Mobile learning (m-learning) SWOT analysis.
SWOT Analysis: m-Learning
Mobile apps eﬀectively
develop all language skills.
Cautious design, planning and
implementation is sometimes
missing but desirable.
Students embrace using
mobile technologies for
Respect to students’ needs.
Students are more motivated
Essential to deliver multiple
language skills in authentic
M-learning is becoming a
salient feature of education.
Small screen size of mobile
Enhancement of the
learner’s cognitive capacity. Lack of human contact.
The learner’s increasing
autonomy and growing
External interference, distraction.
More personalized learning. The addictive nature of mobile
Diversiﬁed resources. Technical problems.
A lot of potential in
m-learning as a new trend.
It is not clear whether m-learning
should remain a supportive
medium or become the primary
one in education
The fast development of
Web 2.0, 3.0, X.0.
Diﬃcult to assess if profound
changes in education should be
expected, including a paradigm
change: if so, how to best prepare
for these changes?
The rapid development of
mobile and smart
Chaotic environment—a lot of
new apps of varying quality plus
the utilization of already existing
May make full inclusion in
Potential lack of guidance for
students in m-learning
New learning environment.
Potential problems for students
preferring a reﬂective style of
learning to an active one.
Source: authors’ own processing.
The results reveal that m-learning is becoming a salient feature of education as it is a great
opportunity and an immense step forward, and it should be supported especially thanks to the beneﬁts
it brings for language learning. These include: the enhancement of the learner’s cognitive capacity,
the learner’s motivation to study in both formal and informal settings, the learner’s autonomy and
conﬁdence, as well as the fact that it promotes personalized learning and helps low-achieving students
to reach their study goals. Although it seems to be eﬀective overall, it is desirable to design, plan and
implement m-learning with caution, according to students’ needs, and to deliver multiple language
skills in authentic learning environments.
Educ. Sci. 2019,9, 179 8 of 9
The limitations of this review consist in the diﬀerent methodologies conducted in the detected
studies, as well as diﬀerent subject samples (varying from only 10 [
] to 140 [
]) and the researching
of diﬀerent language skills. Future research should focus on the eﬀectiveness of the use of such mobile
apps for teaching all four language skills in the context of the learner’s performance.
Conceptualization, J.K., B.K.; Methodology, B.K.; Software, not applicable; Validation,
B.K.; Formal analysis, J.K.; Investigation, J.K., B.K.; Resources, B.K.; Data curation, J.K.; Writing—original
draft preparation, J.K., B.K.; Writing—review & editing, J.K.; Visualization, N/A; Supervision, B.K.; Project
administration, N/A; Funding acquisition, N/A.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
This paper was supported by the research project SPEV 2104/2019, run at the Faculty of
Informatics and Management, University of Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. The authors thank Aleš Berger for
his help with data collection.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂict of interest.
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