Why don’t Korean students use apps for learning English?

This is a question that has been in the back of my mind since last fall when I found myself talking apps, ELT, and more with Ian Cook. My sense at that time was that Korean students typically use their smartphones more for fun than learning. Yes, even in South Korea, a country afflicted with English fever and with blessed with super fast wifi and amazingly high smartphone penetration rates. Last week on this blog I shared reports on IT from my students as well as points from a discussion on edtech with a group of students. I think David Harbinson’s related post is well worth reading.

My students are very successful learners and users of English and I wondered how much of a factor this was in their lack of engagement with apps. I tried to ask them about friends, siblings and former classmates but the general sense was using apps for studying English is not really the done thing.  
I had some theories about why apps might not (yet?) be so popular. The first was that many (most?) apps seem like nothing more than digitized and vaguely interactive versions of things found elsewhere.  I also thought there is something of a lack of awareness among students of the types of apps out there to help students improve their English. Maybe this is related to all this app stuff being relatively new and non-Korean companies not having much of a foothold into or sense of the market. Just a thought. The other thought was about how smartphones seem to be used for killing time and having fun and not for studying and personal development. I am far from an expert on anything said here so I’d be happy for other view points and theories. Update: A thought that came to mind after publishing this post is that I don’t want to imply there is something wrong with not using apps for learning English, or even anything wrong with not learning English. My curiosity was just that, just curiosity about how Korean students, apps, and learning English might seem like a good fit at first glance but don’t seem to be at this point. 

Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with a Korean college student who is preparing to study abroad in the US this fall. In a very nerdy chain of events we were talking about and apps and learning English and related issues and as it started to get very interesting, well for me at least, I stopped the conversation and started talking notes. I asked her if what she said could be used in my blog and she said it was fine. Of course all caveats about this just being the response from one person apply. I thank “Jenny” very much for her patience, time and insights. What follows after the pic is my paraphrased (and translated in parts) version of what she said in response to my question, “Why don’t Korean students use apps to learn English?”



Hmm, interesting question. I never really thought about it. Do people even use smartphones to study English? It’s not something I’d usually choose to do. For me and my friends the smartphone is more about fun and games. I think most people use their phones for messaging and playing and killing time. KakaoTalk is super popular as you know. BTW and OMG, Mike, I think it is so funny and weird you don’t use Kaotalk. You really are from a different generation! Facebook is also popular. I think most people spend their time on their phones using kaotalk and Facebook. Nate Pann is another popular place. People can share what they are doing and tell people what they are up to and keep up with friends and things like that. Of course, some people, like me, read the news as well. A few people read books on their phones but I think this is not so popular. Shorter things are better on phones.

You know what? I don’t think I have seen anyone ever study English on their phone! Some people surely watch movies or dramas on their phones and lots of these are in English. Is this studying? There are usually subtitles unless people are very good at English. There are programs and apps to watch shows and movies. Sometimes we pay and sometimes we don’t.

Yes, Yes, Korea has super fast wifi and everyone has smartphones but we don’t really use them for studying. I am a college student and none of my friends do it. I know there is some contradiction here. English is so important and we are very wired and connected but phones are not used for studying. I think it is related to people wanting to escape from everyday life which is very competitive.. It is nice to zone out and chill out on your phone for a while after studying and working very hard. Phones are sort of a personal thing and a personal chance to be relax and be in our own world. Commuting is a time to rest and relax.

Studying English is very important for me, as it is for all college students. One time, I downloaded an app to listen to “Good Morning Pops” on my phone. It was okay and a good chance to hear and listen to English. I could learn some expressions and things like that. But sometimes it is better and more fun to just listen to music so that is usually what I do. I don’t want to work hard to pay attention and focus on English all the time, especially after a long and hard day of studying or working. I have my own studying to do at other times.

TOEIC and TOEIC speaking are really important for us. For example, I need to get a certain score to graduate from my major. Each major has a different score. My major’s score is 700, and I need to reach that before I can graduate. This means that we are not always so interested in improving our English communication, but more focused on TOEIC scores. Students don’t have time to enjoy their vacations or weekends with TOIEC scores constantly looming over us. English stressed almost everyone out.

Actually, I am personally not stressed. Learning English is interesting and fun. Yet, English and learning English can be boring at times and many people think it is boring. I’d like to practice English more with dramas and things like that. I am not really interested in learning more grammar, to be honest. We have studied English grammar for more than 10 years. I don’t need more of that. Of course my grammar is terrible but that is not what I need or want right now!

Most Korean people study English grammar with books. We are used to that. We are accustomed to spending hours and hours with our books alone and it is different on a phone. I think a phone can be too distracting and when I study English I need to focus and concentrate, especially for complicated things like grammar and vocabulary. We are used to studying hard at the library or other places with books but with phones it’s not usual. It’s just not really popular or common. Maybe it will be someday but I am not sure.


  1. huwjarvis

    It’s a good question and one which along with related qiestions has preoccupied much of my research over recent years. From the editor link of http://www.tesolacademic.org see most recently Jarvis, H. (2014). ‘Digital residents: practices and perceptions of non native speakers’. Asian EFL Journal Teaching Articles. Vol. 75. 21-35. As you will see I am quite ok with this phenomenon.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks Huw. Interesting stuff indeed. I had seen the article with Krashen but not this one. As I mention on twitter I really like this idea of moving beyond CALL.

      One thing that worried me a bit after writing this post was that I might have given readers the impression I thought it was bad or wrong that Korean students are not so into apps for learning. I am very much ok with it and curious to see if this changes. Thanks for reading and sharing.

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  3. Rhett

    Apps and Learning English – Interesting to me too!
    I am a English Language Educator with/for kindergarten and elementary school students. I am in the “process” of designing a book / toy / app combo for…. everyone. I love apps but feel they do not offer the same experience as a toy or book. I am looking to bring these technologies together to create a better experience. There are/will be a lotos challenges. The book and toys should be finished in the next 6 months and then the app (we will see). One thing I don’t want my app to be is a “Learn English App” because i feel that is just the product gained from using it.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Rhett. Your name and situation and interest in tech sounds awfully familiar. I am very curious to see how things develop for you in these areas.

      By the way I think your point about not being an learn English app is an interesting and good one. This seems (at least in mind) to match Huw’s take on things (per the link he mentions). Thanks for sharing your perspectives and best of luck with all.

  4. edelgado1313

    I am an EFL teacher in Mexico city working with teens, I am looking for teachers and students of English abroad who would like to share their culture with mine through very simple activities .

    • mikecorea

      Hola! Thanks for reading and saying hello! I think you just joined the KELTchat facebook group right? If you write a similar message there I can try to direct you to some people that might be interested in this.

  5. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    Mike, you’ve asked an excellent question here. I’ve been wondering the same thing. I have seen some posters in my schools that are about studying English with smart phones, but I can’t remember what they said or if they mentioned apps. I can’t recall any students mentioning any apps for learning English.

    In Korea, there is a site or two that has short video lectures for learning various sentence or grammar forms. I don’t know the address of the site, but sometimes my students study them:

    This isn’t an app, but it does look like good material for use in class. I haven’t seen anyone watching videos from this site besides some coteachers and students, though.

    • mikecorea

      I think that is a good point. Perhaps games and apps and things can seem too fun and frivolous.
      I remember someone gave me advice one time about not highlighting the fun factor too much in class but making sure students are working hard and they know it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Chewie

        EPIK teachers are strongly encouraged to use PPT games in the classroom. But yes, it looks like older Korean learners do “No pain, no gain.”

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  7. ol14

    Here in Japan, the list of most downloaded education app (and apps in general) includes lots of English study apps – but most of my uni students don’t use them. Perhaps it’s because they want to focus their studies on their university course-related homework, rather than general English study apps.

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