Mobile Learning: From language acquisition to cultural competence

Hannah Wilkinson
Feb 10 · 8 min read

In more than one hundred countries around the world, the number of cell phones exceeds the countries’ populations (Beatty, 2013). Mobile phones are ubiquitous in today’s world. Regardless of geography, socioeconomic level, language, religion, or gender, individuals around the world are using mobile phones. The spectrum of uses for a mobile phone is as diverse as the users themselves.

No longer is a phone solely for making a call; phones have become pocket computers, complete with internet access, navigation, translation, platforms for all types of expression, entertainment, and limitless learning tools. The “mobility” of a mobile phone means that any of these uses are accessible whenever and wherever. This portability supports the theory of situated learning which suggests that learning that takes place in a realistic context is more effective than studying similar content in the classroom (Beatty, 2013).

If we understand technology to be a social and cultural phenomenon, it “cannot but influence the ways in which people learn, and therefore what makes for effective learning and effective pedagogy” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009). The focus of this article is the utilization of mobile technology for language teaching and learning. This article explores the benefits of mobile learning, specifically for English as a Second Language, and advocates for teacher training and buy-in. As an extension, I explore the topic of mobile learning through the lens of refugee resettlement and posit that access to mobile phones has the power to increase refugee integration.

Benefits of Mobile Learning

In the context of this article, ‘mobile learning’ refers to the use of mobile devices (namely cell phones and tablets) as tools to support the acquisition of knowledge. ‘Knowledge’ in this case refers to language acquisition. The majority of research on mobile learning surrounds language acquisition; there are gaps in the research of mobile learning for other skills. Mobile learning runs contrary to the traditional notion of learning, specifically second language learning, that typically takes place in a classroom setting.

Likely the most obvious benefit of mobile learning is its inherent portability. Mobile technology offers seamless learning experiences; that is, students are able to study anytime and anywhere (Shadiev, et al, 2018). Learning does not have to happen in one specific classroom or location. Researchers have long argued that mobile learning should help people use their situated everyday life experiences as impromptu sites or spaces to create new opportunities for learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2013). For non-traditional students working jobs, supporting families, and generally busy with non-school activities, mobile learning provides a flexible means through which to access continuing education.

A second benefit of mobile learning is its ability to be individualized (Beatty, 2013). Learning content can easily be modified and scaffolded to meet students where they are. Using placement style pre-tests for specific skills allows students to begin working on content at their exact level of competence. Similarly, this individualization leads to a third benefit: student ownership of their learning. Ownership makes mobile language learning engaging, motivating, and it increases control over goals and communication(Shadiev, Hwang, & Huang, 2017).

Finally, mobile learning provides opportunities for learners to be connected. Connectivity refers to a technical connection to internet, applications, data collection devices, etc. as well as social connectivity. This social connectivity allows students to easily exchange information and creates opportunities for collaboration (Beatty, 2013). With a wide variety of tools available online, cell phones and tablets with internet have access to limitless resources at their fingertips.

While there are drawbacks to mobile learning (small screen size, connectivity issues, access to mobile devices, etc.), they are outweighed by the benefits. As mobile device ownership continues to rise, network coverage will continue to grow, fostering a new generation of mobile learners.

Role of an Educator

People use mobile devices every day. Because of their ubiquity, mobile devices are already influencing how people learn. We use mobile devices to solve a problem, get directions, catch up on news, or learn a new recipe. All of these activities involve some kind of learning — rarely do we capitalize on these ‘teachable moments.’ Regardless of whether teachers decide to adopt new technologies in formal education, learners are found to be already using them to support aspects of their learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009).

How language learners utilize mobile technology is largely determined by what they happen to come across rather than knowledge about which language skills are best improved through mobile learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2013). Therefore, the role of an educator is to equip students with the skills to promote lifelong learning and consider how mobile devices support that aim. There is a false belief that a teacher’s role is diminished when technology is introduced. This is not the case; rather, teachers must guide learners in using devices in the best possible ways (Kukulska-Hulme, 2013).

It is the responsibility of the teachers to prepare activities to attain optimal balance between the content activities in the classroom and mobile learning activities, creating a balance between inside/outside of classroom (Shahbaz & Khan, 2017). Mobile learning that builds on classroom content should be thoughtful and provide students with the strategies necessary to deepen their learning and generalize skills outside of the classroom walls.

In order to carry this out successfully, teachers must become lifelong mobile learners themselves. This should start in teacher education programs. Given the growing interest in mobile technology, language teacher education programs should add a mobile tech training component to the curricula. Additionally, rather than expecting teachers to master new technologies, schools and organizations should provide awareness of and professional development on mobile tech resources (Beatty, 2013).

Regardless of whether teachers decide to adopt mobile technology in formal education, learners will continue to use mobile devices in many aspects of their daily lives. By incorporating mobile technology into lesson planning, teachers are more likely to support students in everyday learning.

Mobile Tech and Refugee Resettlement

As ubiquitous as mobile devices are, there are often complications when traveling with a device from one country to another. Many refugees who are resettled to the USA or another country may arrive with a cell phone or other mobile device; this device may or may not work in the new country. Newly arrived refugees often don’t come with a phone, or one that works in the US — resettlement agencies also do not provide smartphones (Peters, 2017, December).

I argue that providing mobile devices and mobile device training for newly resettled refugees would significantly increase refugee integration into local communities and the new nation at large. The integration of refugees into a country has the potential to result in a significant flow of resources and an important state building contribution to the host country (Bacishoga, Hooper, & Johnston, 2016). The UN (2009) describes social integration as a dynamic process that enables “all people to participate in social, economic, cultural, and political life on the basis of equality of rights and dignity.” Giving refugees mobile technology helps facilitate this social integration.

In a study from 2017, refugees in the US who were given smartphones loaded with a curated set of apps (Google Translate, Duolingo, local transit, etc.) were 45% more likely than their peers to interact with someone from a different culture, 38% more likely to visit their child’s teacher at school, 28% more likely to have internet at home, and 9% said they could speak English “very well” (none of control group said this) (Peters, 2017, December). These numbers prove that access to mobile phones with thoughtfully chosen applications, taking into account use population and location, has the power to drastically increase refugee integration.

Additionally, providing mobile devices to newly arrived refugees promotes self-sufficiency and empowers individuals to search for information they need (Peters, 2017, December). Individuals can navigate new cities, search for jobs, pay bills, conduct business, etc. all through a mobile device. Mobile learning helps refugee populations solve real-life problems in authentic learning environments (Shadiev, Hwang, & Huang, 2017). A case manager or teacher cannot be with a newly arrived refugee at all times. Mobile technology gives these individuals the support they need to navigate challenging situations in real time.

Finally, mobile technologies have opened up new dimensions in social interaction. Mobile devices provide vital links between refugee populations and new friends/contacts in the country of resettlement (Bacishoga, Hooper, & Johnston, 2016). Virtual communication has proven more desirable to some individuals who may have fears about speaking in a foreign language. Translation tools, text-language, and autocorrect tools help boost confidence as these populations are beginning to learn a new language.

For these reasons, and many more, I advocate that newly resettled refugees have access to mobile technology. This access should be provided by public/private partnerships between tech companies and resettlement agencies/education centers working with refugees. Expecting students to purchase the tools of learning can lead to inequality in the form of a digital divide between those who can afford the best devices and applications and those who cannot (Peters, 2017, December). Tech companies can provide guidance on available technologies, assist in pre-programming phones, and train those individuals working with refugee populations. After being trained, case managers, teachers, or others working with refugee populations can decide what programs would be most beneficial to newly arrived populations and best practices for training.


Individuals around the world are utilizing mobile technology in their everyday lives. Mobile devices have infiltrated learning spaces and cannot be ignored. The portability, individualization, sense of ownership, and connectivity all contribute to effective problem-solving and learning outside of a classroom. Educators must embrace this shift and look at mobile technology as an extension to classroom learning. Schools and organizations must facilitate trainings and professional development opportunities for teachers to ensure awareness of new technologies and uses.

Mobile learning benefits all students, particularly non-traditional students. Newly arrived refugee populations represent a non-traditional student population in that they are learning all aspects of a new country, city, language, and culture. Access to mobile devices can help expedite this integration. Mobile devices increase problem-solving capacity and promote learning in natural contexts. Providing mobile devices through public/private partnerships would benefit individuals, communities, and nations at large.


Bacishoga, K. B., Hooper, V. A., & Johnston, K. A. (2016). The Role Of Mobile Phones In The Development Of Social Capital Among Refugees In South Africa. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 72(1), 1–21.

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Kukulska-Hulme, Agnes (2013). Re-skilling Language Learners for a Mobile World. The International Research Foundation for English Language Education (TIRF), Monterey, USA.

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Shadiev, R., Hwang, W. Y., & Huang, Y. M. (2017). Review of research on mobile language learning in authentic environments. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 30(3–4), 284–303.

Shadiev, R., Hwang, W. Y., Huang, Y. M., & Liu, T. Y. (2018). Facilitating application of language skills in authentic environments with a mobile learning system. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 34(1), 42–52.

Shahbaz, M., & Khan, R. M. I. (2017). Use of Mobile Immersion in Foreign Language Teaching to Enhance Target Language Vocabulary Learning. MIER Journal of Educational Studies, Trends and Practices, 7(1).

Hannah Wilkinson

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Int’l education + curriculum builder | Founder of @ESLForEquality | Co-founder of @SmallScreensOrg | Follow for #Refugees, #MobileLearning, #ESL, and 🌎events.