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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Language learning for migrants through apps

by Celia Sokolowsky
Language: EN
Document available also in: HR HU

/epale/en/file/mobile-learning-migrantsMobile Learning for Migrants

Mobile Learning for Migrants


The German Language Promotion Programme of the German Federal Government recommends the intensive use of digital learning media within and outside the classroom, in the context of integrating adult migrants in the labour market. In this blog post, Celia Sokolowsky from the German Adult Education Association discusses ways in which digital mobile learning media can be used to encourage independent learning outside the course, and effectively support language learning for migrants.


Mobile learning is on the move

Nowadays teachers and education planners can safely assume that most learners have smartphones with more processing power than the computers in the PC labs of many language schools and adult education centres. Despite this, learning with a smartphone is subject to restrictions, e.g. due to screen size or input options. This places high demands on the design of digital learning media.

The constant availability of digital devices offers great opportunities for flexible and individual learning. However, there is the danger that any incoming notification from the phone, a text message, or a reminder from an app, can interrupt the learning app or even lead to it being closed. Therefore it is challenging to design learning in such a way that it remains interesting in the long term and engaging for learners.


Linking language acquisition to real-life situations

Digital learning materials often fail to embed the learning content in communicative scenarios. There are many vocabulary apps on the market that offer exercises in which the learner matches words and images, and others with grammar exercises in gap-fill format, but the language in these apps is rarely offered in context. If the aim of the application is not only to support learners in processing the material taught in class, but also to enable largely self-directed learning, something important is missing – reference to the communicative challenges of everyday and working life.

A study commissioned by the BAMF (German National Bureau on Migration and Refugees) on the linguistic needs of people with German as their second language in companies shows that companies place greater value on functioning communication processes than on the correct use of the language. Learning offers therefore need to develop and strengthen not only linguistic knowledge, but also the competence to successfully use the language. To do so, they have to show communication in the context of real scenarios.


Varied exercises maintain motivation

The inclusion of a variety of exercises supports learners in moving from passive to productive understanding of the language. New linguistic content is first recorded through different channels and understood in context before being imitated, analysed, and finally used in free production. In addition to the classics of digital learning such as multiple choice, gap filling and matching, other types of exercise are also included to maintain learners’ motivation.

However, there are some thing to be mindful of. With each new type of exercise, users need to adapt to new functionalities. The development of innovative forms of exercise in digital environments therefore carries the risk of frustrating, demotivating and, even losing users. In this context, a high degree of user-friendliness that is oriented towards familiar functionalities and operating methods is of central importance (e.g. voice recording works in the learning app just like in well-known messaging apps, such as WhatsApp).


Feedback and tutorial support

The fast and immediate feedback that digital programmes can provide to learners is a big advantage. Incorrect answers or inputs can be repeated and corrected immediately. This potentially accelerates the learning process as learners’ use of the language is directly confirmed and they can move forward or repeat at their own pace.

However, if a learning programme is not merely intended to supplement lessons with additional exercises, open and productive tasks should also be offered to enable learners to establish a link between their language learning objectives and their own lives. Promising developments in the field of gamification and e-reward systems are certainly likely to increase learners’ motivation. However, the future of sustainable mobile digital language learning belongs to apps that offer tutorial support via a learning management system in the background, and thus foster human relationships. Feedback in such exercises should be provided by the tutors who, in addition to simply correcting mistakes, should also consider the context and assess the individual learning progress. Although some learners appreciate digital learning precisely because it offers "unobserved" testing of language beyond courses and learning groups, the central motivation in language learning is in any case social contact, the desire to relate with others.


Educators have to learn too

Digital and mobile learning in the field of second language learning and labour market integration can enrich learning, make it more flexible and more individualised. It can reach participants who are hindered by shift work or other issues that make attending face-to-face courses very difficult.

However, digital and mobile learning is not a "cheap solution" to the challenges of language learning in a vocational context and on the job. Resources are needed to develop and operate suitable, intelligent learning environments, but also to support teachers’ professional development. Teachers in adult and continuing education understand the great potential that digital learning can offer participants in their courses, and yet often cannot make use of it because they themselves feel insecure in the new digital world. The project "Ich will Deutsch lernen", which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and implemented by the German Adult Education Association (DVV), focuses not only on the development of online courses and language needs, but also on the further training of teachers and the development of teacher handouts and support materials that support the use of digital learning in the context of courses. The high demand for these courses and materials indicates a long-unmet need for training in this area.

Celia Sokolowsky is Head of the "I want to Learn German" project at the German Adult Education Association (DVV) in Bonn, Germany.

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