An Auto-Ethnographic Study on the Use of Apps for Language Learning

Antonie Alm, University of Otago

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In this auto-ethnographic study, I describe and analyse my learning experiences as a novice learner of Spanish with mobile apps. Over a period of six months, I explored and used a range of different apps to study Spanish in pockets of (free) time (Kukulska-Hulmes, 2012) and documented my use of these apps, my observations and reflections on my learning process with the journaling app Day One.

The aim of this study was to experience the use of apps from a learner’s perspective. Language learning apps vary widely in scope and purpose and while only a minority of apps have been developed by educational specialists (Springer & Guillén, 2016), they can offer an unconventional and often intuitive approach to language learning. The language app Duolingo, for example, has a gaming component, which makes it one of the most popular apps on the market. Reverso, a translation app used by many language students, enables learners to match words and phrases with chunks of original L2 texts. HelloTalk claims to have the world’s largest mobile language learning community, connecting language learners from around the globe to chat at their pace with their chosen level of support (through translation, corrections, voice recordings).

As these tools become available to our language students and new digital language learning practices emerge, it is crucial to experience and to evaluate alternative approaches to language learning. This presentation will provide an overview of the apps I explored and a preliminary analysis of my diary entries.


Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2012). Language learning defined by time and place: A framework for next generation designs. In Diaz-Vera, Javier, E. (eds.) Left to my own device: Learner autonomy and mobile assisted language learning. Innovation and Leadership in English Language Teaching, 6. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 1-13.

Springer, S. & Guillén, G. (2016). Wands, Spells, and Magic Pills: The Lingo of Language Learning Products. Presentation at CALICO Conference 2016.

Antonie Alm

Department of Languages & Cultures
University of Otago

4 thoughts on “An Auto-Ethnographic Study on the Use of Apps for Language Learning”

  1. Hi Antonie! This is incredible. I work as a graduate student in the Italian Studies department at Cal State Long Beach and have been working with technology and online language learning for the past 4 years. I am amazed at your Spanish from this self-taught journey in a matter of 8 months. How do you anticipate these apps will change the language learning environment in the college-level classroom? I also saw the next step for your research may be student’s experiences with apps. I would love to share my experience or collaborate with you if you’re interested. You can contact me here or by email Cheers!

    1. Hi Joe! Thank you for your feedback 🙂 Sorry for the late reply, I just noticed the comments now. I think it’s a fascinating field and would love to hear about your experiences. Let’s talk after the conference!

  2. Buenos dias Antonie, y felicitaciones! Que maravilloso viaje con apps! I have done some very basic research on apps and language learning that is far less sophisticated than your ethnographic journey as a disciplined learner who knows what it means to learn a new language. I hope to get a recent paper into article shape soon but an older preliminary paper is here:

    I will be adding a bit in my talk on Saturday on app-based language learning. Your design-based MALL is informed and dedicated; my fears are that most learners will follow (swallow?) the app intelligence (if that is an appropriate word 😉 ) and pursue the learning packaged more often than not in terms of memorization and drill and kill. You have spliced your learning using multiple resources (thanks btw for the typology of apps), and forcing yourself into human conversation. This is valuable learning from an informed learner–truly design-based MALL rather than app-based MALL given your self-direction. Gracias!

    1. Buenos dias Heather! Muchas gracias por su comentario 🙂
      I agree that a background in language learning makes a big difference in how one approaches language apps. Yet I wouldn’t underestimate the ingenuity of some less experienced language learners and I believe that we can learn from their experiences as well.
      I am looking forward to your talk tomorrow and will have a look at our paper now!

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