Back in ancient times of smart / mobile phones (2004), I was part of a start-up called GoTestGo. The purpose of GoTestGo was to bring test preparation to mobile phones. The idea was intriguing: Create portable learning applications that English learners (or other subject learners) could use on the go, waiting on the bus, standing in line, etc. to improve their language skills. Unfortunately, there were many challenges to be dealt with including:

  • Each phone accessed a different programming library if you wanted to include anything beyond text. In other words, if you wanted to create an application that looked ‘modern’, you had to program for literally hundreds of devices.
  • iTunes didn’t exist. It was necessary to develop third party relationships to get on to ‘wap’ decks, or into mobile phone application stores.
  • Because you had to develop third party relationships, revenue share was extremely thin. 50% went to the carriers or telecoms, 50% of that went to the third party with whom you developed a relationship. In other words, at a price of $3.99 the company received aproximately 25% – $1. Think of the scale needed to gain success in the market.
  • Worst of all, users didn’t bite. Well, let’s say they nibbled.

The main difficulty was the last. There are some embarrassing stories to tell, but I won’t go into that. After banging the head against the wall in this and other startups, I’ve learned that it’s best to develop a MVP (minimum viable product) and see if there is any demand. If there is, it’s time to press the accelerator. Thanks to Portland Ten for instructing me on this technique.

Now, it’s modern times. People love their iPhones and Android devices AND their apps. The question is: Will English learners really use these devices to improve their English? I think the answer is yes, but I do think that many language learning app providers aren’t going about it in the right way. A lot of what I see looks like standard grammar book or other reference materials ported to the iPhone. There are some interesting flashcard apps as well. But, really, flashcards? I guess it makes sense and fits the form factor, and I’m sure it’s useful. However, I’m not sure it really helps to use English communicatively. That’s the holy grail in terms of these apps. How can the device be used to help users to improve their communication skills?

Admittedly, I may be missing the point here. Living in Portland there’s a thriving ecosystem of app shops and other startups jockeying for position, so I’m hearing lots of buzz which reflect what our overlord Google has to say. According to Google, mobile is all about:

A. “Repetitive now”
B. “Bored now”
C. “Urgent now”

What sort of category would English language learning (or language learning in general) fit into? My guess is that there could be apps for language learning in all three categories. Repetitive now fits flashcard apps and what I like to call ‘grammar banging’ really well. Short questions, banging stuff in, test prep, that sort of thing. Bored now – that’s harder. It seems like bored now = entertainment of some sort. Is learning English entertaining? Sure, it can be entertaining, but is the end-user going to think along those lines? Urgent now – I think Google is already beating other language learners into this space with its translation tools for those on the road.

Still, not a lot of communication going on there… hmm maybe using a smart phone to help improve communication skills makes no sense. But… aren’t mobile phones used for communicative purposes? Tough nut to crack, this one. Theory and real-world user case scenarios seems to be pointing in one direction, but in terms of English learning I’m not convinced what would work, would work in terms of creating any real perceived need to pick up that smart phone and use it to learn English …

My guess is that the best category is ‘repetitive now’ and that any English learning app should be leveraging the inherent platform, rather than just porting over rote learning. In other words, kinetic actions (drag and drop comes to mind) that take advantage of swiping, reminders pushed from an app that now it’s time to do XYZ, interactions with the real-world using the camera to initiate some sort of learning. People are purchasing apps, so there is plenty of opportunity – I’m guessing. It’s just a shame that the development I’ve seen so far just looks like web pages ported into an app. But then again, that’s exactly the mistake I made the first time round years ago with GoTestGo…

7 Responses to “Learning English on Smart Phones?”

  1. on 08 Mar 2011 at 11:49 amBrad Patterson

    Great question, and you certainly have the experience to provide a great answer.

    I loved your google insight on the nature of mobile phones’ use: “Repetitive now”, “Bored now”, “Urgent now”

    Another interesting question is “What is a smartphone?” Is it a phone? Is it a calculator? Is it a camera, or a video camera? Is it a 21st-century gameboy? I would venture to say that it is all of these, and because of that, it’s even much more than the sum of all of these diverse elements.

    Lastly, your main question is very important for ESL professionals and their students, and it’s one that I’ve heard asked a lot these days:

    Can it be a good language tool?

    I agree that in many situations learners require more activation, and can benefit from more COmmunication and less “repetition” or flash cards. And yet, what if those flashcards were personally chosen by them as they read the international news, or as they were doing their homework… only flashcards for meanings they needed to solidify.

    That’s our approach with a new app called SnaPanda. In a world of language apps where translation has made big waves, as a teacher, I encourage other teachers and students to check out this little panda, doubling as a dictionary with a twist. It allows you to touch a word you don’t understand, and then to master it over a short period of time. Its pedagogical approach focuses on context, expressions and repetition.

    It’s free for Android, and will soon be on iOS as well. We’d love to hear what you think about this new tool for students, and yet another angle in the ever-growing matrix of possibilities smartphones offer.

    Take a look at this one-minute youtube video to see the panda in action:

    Thanks again for posing these important questions, and I hope my answer adds another shade of light to the subject. Cheers, Brad

  2. on 08 Mar 2011 at 1:53 pmKenneth Beare


    Great question. Actually, in the post about Englishtown (discussed in more depth over on that’s sort of what is going on, except that students are hooked into their curriculum. In other words, if student X gets to lesson 4 section 3 his iPhone app’s flashcard abilities will synch into his progress in order to practice while sitting on the bus or whatever. I think this is a pretty good use – Bill Fisher referred to it as threading social and mobile into the learning experience. It’s quite interesting and I think definitely has legs.

  3. on 08 Mar 2011 at 1:59 pmkenneth Beare


    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’ll definitely check out SnaPanda. Do you use any sort of repetition formula – say new word X gets repeated in Y contexts to ensure assimilation? Something along the lines of perhaps?

    I love the idea of touching a word and it gets added to a database for further review. Is it only one word at a time, or does it include clusters? Idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs are a tough nut to crack, and many times students want to learn those larger ‘chunks’.


  4. on 08 Mar 2011 at 2:08 pmDoug

    Is there already an app that allows an instructor to design his own lessons (or use a template to do so) and then send it to students en masse and/or individually?


  5. on 08 Mar 2011 at 2:13 pmdelmon


    I haven’t run across one yet. I’d imagine that designing the lesson would be done best online and then sent out via the phone. I can’t imagine designing a lesson on the phone itself. That’s a good idea, maybe it’s ripe for Kickstarter!

  6. on 08 Mar 2011 at 2:19 pmBrad Patterson

    Hi Ken and Doug-

    Thanks for your questions and positive comments. Wow! That wired article and the supermemo are quite impressive. I’ll have to cull over them a bit longer, but the idea of having systematic reminders would be learning taken to the max! :)

    Incorporating such repetition algorithms into SnaPanda is an interesting idea. Just like you, we like the core concept of our gymnastic panda- that he can grab words and run and find definitions, enabling a learner to build their personalized word bank. Departing from that basic idea, we’ve imagined a roadmap where 3rd parties could add extensions such as an intelligent assistant à la supermemo, words games, or other fun ideas. However, that’s still a bit down the road. We’ve now finalized the Android Beta version and have launched work on the iPhone.

    Lastly, as far as idiomatic expressions go, if you touch “look”, for example, it’ll take you to the dictionary for “look up” “look down” “look around” and other such phrasal verbs. In future editions, we’ll aim to include other larger chunks, or idioms, but as always, one step at a time. :)

    Let me know if you have any other questions after exploring SnaPanda a bit more, and this might be the best spot to take a better look:

    Thanks again, and a wonderful week to you both.

  7. on 09 Mar 2011 at 6:18 pmEric

    The underlying message and your observations are equally applicable to commercial mobile marketing as much as mLearning. People are repeating many of the same mistakes in both Industries — treating mobile as if it’s traditional online engagement. And, often coming up with campaigns that no one engages in (QR campaigns have largely been dreadful in terms of user response).

    I’ve been working on a mobile app to help out with conversation at ESLai. It’s like a chat bot, but focused on very specific topics to help English learners get practice conversing about very specific tasks. When it comes to “best guessing” whether or not our conversational mobile learning will work and be in demand by Users, the premises I’m working under are:

    a) Globally, people communicate on mobile phones via short, conversational text exchanges. Text Messaging is the #1 form of written communication in the world.

    Therefore, learning through the same channel (though, it’s mobile web text, therefore no SMS charges) should be intuitive and natural. Basically, everyone “texts,” so there’s no new skill involved from a technical level. It’s intuitive for the device, more than any other navigational structure.

    b) Mobile phones are often a private and very personalized space for their owners. It’s not like online engagement which is far less personal. Therefore, the idea of practicing conversations that are interactive and which “listen” to the User (and, take User input to contextualize or personalize the engagement) should, again, be more natural.

    So, I’d say that the “repetition” as well as “anywhere access” and “private exploration” of language may be the “pluses? Using a tool in the same manner someone uses it for communicating with friends and family, but, for mLearning, is the other selling point.

    That said, the only way we will find out is when people use it and recommend it to others. Or, where Teachers recommend it to students.