[or: An APPetite for learning – guest post by Neil Ballantyne]

Based at the British Council Hong Kong, Neil works with a team developing web products and smartphone apps for learners and teachers. In this guest blog post, Neil gives us a great overview of the smartphone apps out there right now for English language learners. Teachers and learners, take note!

Nicky mentioned a few ways learners are using their mobile phones to help them improve their language skills. This post will focus on a number of the smartphone apps available to language learners.

iPhone with apps described in this post

iPhone with apps described in this post

There are so many apps it is impossible to keep on top of all of them so please use the comments box below to suggest other useful apps for language learners.

The focus below is on iPhone and Android phones only, if only for the simple fact that I possess these phone so have access to the apps, although they are by far the two largest app markets at the moment.

I have structured this review into categories, looking at dictionaries, language games, vocabulary and grammar focused apps, flashcard-based apps and courseware.


There are a lot of dictionaries available from the app stores. A lot of these are web-based apps requiring an internet connection. Essentially these are just applications that render the web content in a phone-friendly manner.

  • Native apps (those which ‘live’ on the phone and do not require an internet connection) often cost a lot of money. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English costs US$29.99 but is a useful reference tool for learners on the go. It contains all that you’d expect from the book version, plus audio files.


There are loads of word games available both for the iPhone and Android from word-searches to Boggle-type games. A couple of noteworthy apps aimed specifically for the language learner come from the British Council.

  • Johnny Grammar’s Quizmaster (free) for the Android has a selection of quizzes for spelling, grammar and vocabulary where users choose the correct answer from a number of options.
  • For the iPhone, 60 Second Word Challenge (free) has the user race against the clock to complete the blanks in sentences based around topics such as shopping, food and useful idioms and expressions.

Grammar-focused apps

Put grammar into the iTunes App store and dozens of titles appear – all much of a muchness, working around the concept of testing discrete items within a range of question types (usually gap fills or multiple choice).

  • Cambridge have put two versions of Murphy’s Grammar in Use onto the iPhone. The Test version ($4.99) looks nice enough but does not provide any explanations on the grammar being tested. If the learners wants to find out the rules behind a particular grammar point, the traditional book unit is referenced – meaning you have to have both the book and the app to make the most of it.
  • The Activities version ($9.99) contains exercises similar to the book but again lacks any useful feedback if the learners gets a questions wrong.

Flashcard apps

Androi phone with language learning apps

Android phone with apps described in this post

The flashcard genre works on pretty much the same principle across the apps. A card is presented with a phrase or word. On the reverse is either a translation/picture/sound file. The sophistication of the products vary wildly from those that simply present the words to those that can remember which words you are struggling with and force these to be revised more often. They generally work well in the phone format; an easy three minute killer to practice a set of words, either browsing through the flashcards or being tested on recall from a sound phrase.

  • There are lots of such apps on the market. Gengo flashcards for iPhone have a range of languages although if the learner wants to practice more than just lexical sets of fruit and weather you will have to part with $5.99. The paid version also provides the ability to add user-generated flashcards.
  • The byki series (free, upgrades from $7.99), also for iPhone and spreading across many languages including English, follows a similar format but also focuses on useful phrases rather than just discrete items.
  • Ankidroid (free) for the Android can be loaded with flashcards produced on a computer. This app could be particularly useful for teachers who want to produce sets of flashcards for their learners to practice on their phone or computer (see here).


Smartphones lend them selves to short bite-sized interactions so it is interesting to see what developers are looking at with regards to courseware.

  • By far the most engaging I have come across are the iPhone apps developed by Red River Press: Conversation English, English at Work and Learning English with the New York Times ($5.99 each). The three apps have been developed around then same principle: a collection of lessons with a dialogue or reading text with a pre-listening/reading vocabulary check, post listening/reading comprehension questions and a variety of activities based around the vocabulary in the text. The NYT app is set around classic news stories from the New York Times. None of the texts are too long. The Conversation English and English at Work courses build around a continuous story that, although rather contrived, does keep some interest and motivation to continue from lesson to lesson.
  • Others of note include Everyday English. This polished production provides a series of videos with a tutor talking through some of the basic aspects of English. ($0.99/episode).
  • For both iPhone and Android, EnglishPod (free samples), allows you to download magazine style audio programmes based around a dialogue. Apart from a key phrases glossary there isn’t much wrap-around and unfortunately this app falls for the classic mistake of making the instructions and introductory language more complex than the target language.

Special mention to…

  • StoryKit (free) comes preloaded with four classic fairy tales providing good reading practice for younger learners. The great thing about this app is that you can edit the story and then share it with your friends. Users can also create their own books importing images from the gallery or the camera. These user-generated books can be shared between users. Could be great for literacy classes.

Moodle on iPhone

Finally, considering this blog is aimed at e-Moderators, there are a couple of apps and projects running at the moment for putting Moodle onto the iPhone.

  • mTouch ($2.99) is a web-based app that allows access to Moodle courses. A reasonable attempt but not quite there yet. The quizzes module is not supported, SCORM activities can’t be viewed and the forums and wikis are fiddly. Not really worth the couple of dollars they are charging at the moment.
  • There are a few other projects out there at the moment and more will undoubtedly appear as smartphones become the baseline for mobile devices. Check out this exciting looking project.

Related posts:

Neil Ballantyne
British Council Hong Kong
May 2010