The Power of Contextual Language Learning [RESOURCES]

The concept of contextual learning is hardly a new one. American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey imagined it in the first half of the 20th century when he advocated project-based learning and experiential education. Kurt Lewin and David Kolb established similar theories on experiential learning, or the process of making meaning from a direct experience.

Though applicable to classroom environments, contextual learning is becoming increasingly viewed as a “reality-based, outside-of-the-classroom experience, within a specific context which serves as a catalyst for students to utilize their disciplinary knowledge, and which presents a forum for further formation of their personal values, faith, and professional development” (Wikipedia). This shift can be attributed to the rise of mobile technologies in education, including smartphones, tablets, apps and location-based services (LBS).

So, what is context?


We can broadly define context as the formal or informal setting in which a situation occurs. It can include many aspects or dimensions, such as location, time (year/month/day), personal and social activity, resources, and goals and task structures of groups and individuals.

—Source: Location-based and contextual mobile learning [PDF]

What is the role of context in (mobile) language learning?


Here are three excerpts from experts that tackle this question:

“As we interact in a contextually rich learning environment, we pick up relevant jargon, imitate behavior, and gradually start to act in accordance with the norms of the cultural setting.”

—Source: Contextual Learning Strategies

“As soon as learning becomes mobile, location becomes an important context, both in terms of the physical whereabouts of the learner and the opportunities for learning to become location-sensitive.”

—Source: Location-based and contextual mobile learning [PDF]

“A proficient language user grasps the patterns of a language and thus creates or finds meaning not simply by relying upon what is spoken in an utterance or written in a text, that is, not simply by relying on what is ‘there’ in a context of use, but by depending on the contrast between what is spoken or written and what could have been but is not. This entails that much of what makes communication possible is objectively undetectable in the material context and exists abstractly in this system of contrasting possibilities in the minds of the participants. This works at all levels of the system, from grammatical features of agreement to the discourse and pragmatics of politeness (“Wait a minute” sounds rude from a clerk because it contrasts with an alternative expression of the same meaning: “One moment”). Seen from this perspective, what characterizes learners or novices and distinguishes them from ‘experts’ or proficient members of a speech community is their unawareness of these invisible alternatives.

This… allows us to frame one of the basic needs of a mobile, situated learner in a way that suggests how mobile technologies might aid them. The crucial limitation of the unaided learner ‘in the wild’ is his or her unawareness of the underlying paradigms that imbue the speech or text at hand with its meaning and significance. We can imagine then how the same learner with mobile technologies in hand might be scaffolded into such awareness right there ‘in situ’. This gives some substance to the notion of ‘contextually appropriate’ content. Broadly stated, the device can be seen as a means for rendering visible what is crucial but otherwise invisible to the uninitiated learner. Whether this would be done by smart devices that are context aware or by human experts made accessible to the learner by the technology is a rich area for discussion and experiment.”

—Source: Context at the Crossroads of Language Learning and Mobile Learning [PDF]

What are some studies that explore location-based language learning?

1. Location-Based Auto-Suggested Vocabulary Lists: A Design Exploration [PDF]

Overview: This paper introduces a prototypical iPhone application that auto-suggests relevant vocabulary words and definitions to a user based on the user’s location. Its findings suggest that users were generally positive about the premise and found the idea of location-based vocabulary lists intuitive.

2. Interactive Location-Based Game for Supporting Effective English Learning [PDF]

Overview: This paper highlights the need for modern assisted-learning tools that can support effective English learning. One such tool is the location-based game, which has a high potential to support context-aware learning. Preliminary results reveal that the proposed location-based game provides benefits in terms of promoting learners’ interests and increasing their willingness to learning English.

3. MicroMandarin: Mobile Language Learning in Context [PDF]

Overview: Backed by field research with language learners and support from Cognitive Psychology and Second Language Acquisition, this paper argues for the value of contextual learning during learners’ daily downtime. It presents a mobile application that supports microlearning by leveraging the location-based service Foursquare to automatically provide contextually relevant content in some of the world’s major cities.

What is the future of contextual language learning?


With mobile language learning technologies on the rise, it’s easy to conclude that contextual learning is evolving quickly. But what will it look like in 5, 10, 20 or even 100 years?

Here’s a challenge for your students:

Write an essay or blog post in which you make predictions about the future of contextual language learning. Use the information in this article – including linked resources – as well as the following infographics.

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education, via

GeoLocal: The Rise of Consumer Location-based Services, via GigaOm

Are We Wired For Mobile Learning? via Voxy