An Investigation of Chinese Older Adults' Self-Directed English Learning Experience Using Mobile Apps

An Investigation of Chinese Older Adults' Self-Directed English Learning Experience Using Mobile Apps

Yangting Wang (University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, USA) and M. Sidury Christiansen (University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJCALLT.2019100104


A majority of research on mobile-assisted language learning focuses on traditional English language learners: thus, little attention has been paid to older adult learners. The purpose of the study is to explore the learning experiences of Chinese older adults using the free and popular English learning mobile apps, Duolingo/Hello English, Baicizhan, and Liulishuo, in a self-directed learning (SDL) context. A 17-week sequential mixed-methods study was designed. 55 older adults from age 45 to 85 participated. The informed grounded theory was used and Saldana's coding techniques for qualitative analysis. Quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and paired sample t-tests. Findings demonstrate that older adults persisted in learning using mobile apps for 17 weeks and increased their vocabulary significantly. Finally, a transformational learning model called MISAPP was created based on the empirical data and the SDL theory.
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While a large number of Chinese people over the age of 40 own smartphones, they often lack the technology know-how to adopt new features of smartphone use, such as mobile applications (apps) to learn English. As smartphones give people the ability to freely access many apps, mobile learning (ML) affords older adults new opportunities to learn English at their own pace (Hsu, 2015). The purpose of this study is to explore the learning experiences of Chinese older adults using popular English learning mobile apps. Over the last decade in China, ownership and use of hand-held devices has dramatically increased to 55% of the population (National Bureau of Statistics, 2018), 49% of people between ages 45-54, 34% between ages 55-64, and 19% over 65 owned a smartphone in 2016 (eMarketer, 2016). Despite the ubiquitous nature of smartphones and tablets, research in mobile-assisted language learning (MALL) is lacking in both formal and informal contexts (Stockwell & Hubbard, 2013). Even more scarce is research on how non-school age individuals use apps to learn a foreign or second language in informal settings.

The study focuses on Chinese older adults because many working professionals frequently travel abroad for business trips or visits and many Chinese immigrants live in English-speaking countries but are unable to speak English sufficiently well (Hsiao, 2018). Thus, this population is effectively motivated to improve their English in order to communicate successfully with English speakers. Additionally, since most studies on MALL have focused on traditional English language learners (ELLs) such as university students (Kan & Tang, 2018; Zou & Li, 2018), studies on non-traditional learners, such as Chinese older adults learning English, are sparse. The definition of “older” depends on the specific context and research goals; previous ML studies have accounted for an age range as early as over 40 to as late as 75 (Gao, Yang, & Krogstie, 2015). In our study, we consider 40 to 85 years as “older adult” learners because they do not have access to the same resources traditional classroom students do.

Using mobile apps may be an effective way to aid older adults in self-directed English learning (Gao et al., 2015) because Mobile Learning has advantages such as flexibility, small size, low cost, and user-friendliness (Kim, Rueckert, Kim, & Seo, 2013). Therefore, we selected English learning apps that cover a variety of language subskills, including a grammar app (Duolingo or Hello English), a vocabulary app (Baicizhan), and a speaking and listening app (English Liulishuo), for participants to conduct self-learning.

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