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Review of  The Handbook of Informal Language Learning

Reviewer: Alexandra Galani
Book Title: The Handbook of Informal Language Learning
Book Author: Mark Dressman Randall William Sadler
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 31.3147

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“The Handbook of Informal Language Leaning” (ILL), edited by Mark Dressman and Randall William Sadler, is a collection of 31 chapters. It includes “Notes on contributors” and an index.

In “Introduction”, Mark Dressman introduces the “new field of research” (p. 2). “Informal language learning includes all activities undertaken by learners outside a formally organised programme of language instruction” (p. 4). He also provides a summary of the book chapters.

Part I: Theorizing informal language learning

Alice Chic in Chapter 1, “Motivation and informal language learning”, explores how learners motivate themselves when they learn languages through language learning social network sites (LLSNS). Dimensions --such as location, formality, pedagogy, locus of control and trajectory (Benson 2011, Chik 2014, 2018)— are relevant to the learning process. It is up to the learners’ identities to take advantage of the affordances of LLSMS. The study is based on her own personal experience and the experience of other learners while using the Duolingo platform.

Kiel Christianson and Sarah-Elizabeth Deshaies in Chapter 2, “Learning languages in informal environments: Some cognitive considerations”, discuss the cognitive mechanisms employed in children’s language acquisition and adults’ foreign language learning. Adults may master language proficiency fast and as efficiently as children due to their metalinguistic awareness and the learning strategies they employ to their learning. The nature of ILL platforms (i.e. video games, captioned videos) may eliminate factors --such as adults’ anxiety for making mistakes— which obstruct learning.

In Chapter 3, “Multimodality and language learning”, Mark Dressman argues in favour of a semiotic approach to multimodality in relation to foreign language teaching, following Peirce’s work (1995). The treatment is based on four principles: reciprocal indexicality, chained semiosis, overdetermination, and the cooperative principle. ILL is successful when learners are exposed to input from various sources (written language, images, videos).

Silvina Montrul in Chapter 4, “How learning context shapes heritage and second language acquisition”, compares first, second and heritage language acquisition. Language acquisition is affected by age, input and learning context (formal versus informal). New technologies (i.e. computer-assisted language learning, computer-mediated communication, gaming) may facilitate adult second language and heritage language learning, as they provide opportunities for increased input task-based instruction, offer feedback and enhance student engagement and motivation.

Paul Kei Matsuda and Melika Nouri in Chapter 5, “Informal writing and language learning”, suggest that informal writing is important for the development of second language proficiency and literacy, at it contributes to fluency, functionality, fun and ubiquity. They show how informal writing can be incorporated in the classroom context through various activities (i.e. free writing, notes, reflections).

Part II: Learning in digital contexts

Randall William Sadler In Chapter 6, “Virtual landscapes”, discusses the development of virtual worlds (VW) and their potential, i.e. “they lead to a “tangible experience”” (p. 91), reduce anxiety and enhance student collaboration. VW are beneficial to ILL, as they conform to the characteristics of third places (Oldenburg, 1999) (e.g. neutral ground, conversation, accessibility, accommodation, playful mood) and allow multilinguistic language interaction. Instructors can integrate virtual reality, which is in the center of current technological developments, in their teaching.

In Chapter 7, “Gaming and informal language learning”, Stephanie W. P. Knight, Lindsay Marean and Julie M. Sykes explain that games and classrooms share common features (i.e. quality goal orientation, meaningful interaction, feedback, contextualised language use). Students motivation and autonomy are promoted and their analytic and critical thinking skills are developed. Informal language acquisition is facilitated through play and learners’ interaction. Such settings provide low risk, simulated practice, emotionally supportive environments and global competences. Nevertheless, platforms (i.e. Babbel, Duolingo) lack “spontaneous and socially mediated communication” (p. 110) and “focus on pragmatic and cultural skills” (p. 111).

Panagiotis Arvanitis in Chapter 8, “Self-paced language learning using online platforms”, discusses five web-based mobile applications for foreign language learning (Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Busuu and Memrise). He presents the results of a study about students’ perceptions of Duolingo and Babbel. The platforms have been evaluated on the basis of Krystalli’s (2011) criteria: learner autonomy, self-assessment, feedback, motivation and consistency of educational objectives, language skills and credibility. The platforms increased learners’ interest, engagement and motivation but did not provide any opportunities for oral and written interactions.

Shannon Sauro in Chapter 9 looks at “Fan fiction in informal language learning”. Learners participate in fan practices (i.e. anime, fanzines) to develop their writing skills, build their linguistic confidence or form new identities as language users. Fan Fiction (FF) includes different genres and tropes, e.g. imagines, cross-over stories, author insert, collaborative storytelling. It aids learners’ development of their reading, writing and critical digital literacy skills and additional language use (i.e. creative writing, building identity). Students read texts to collect information, analyse the texts of others and write their own texts. They benefit from their interaction with others, receive peer-feedback, proofread and edit texts.

Tatiana Codreanu and Christelle Combe in Chapter 10, “Vlogs, video publishing, and informal language learning”, exemplify how vlogs can be used in ILL. Students express themselves freely on topics they have chosen and interact with others in various ways (receive different types of comments in different languages). Vloggers and their audience form a community in which peer-reviewing or corrections take place. Vloggers also acquire and develop their digital literacy skills. Vlogs provide opportunities for intercultural exchanges among users but interpersonal and intercultural tensions may be observed. Among other limitations, language learners may be reluctant to use vlogs due to ethical reasons and legal issues. In order to provide explanations and make corrections, students need to acquire a skill, namely “knowing how to validate the relevance of information on the Internet” (p. 165).

In Chapter 11, “Mobile collaboration for language learning and cultural learning”, Agnes Kakulska-Hulme and Helen Lee review studies about how mobile devices (MD) can be used in ILL. MD allow students to access authentic sources of language input, improve their language skills (use of audio and video features), engage in authentic settings (conduct interviews) and collaborate in digital social platforms to develop their language and intercultural skills. MD can be part of “context-aware forms of learning” (p. 174). Teachers are the facilitators of the language learning activities-scenarios to be carried out.

Part III: Learning through media and live contact

Robert Vanderplank in Chapter 12, “Video and informal language learning”, present studies which examine the benefits of subtitles and captions’ use in foreign language learning. Captions are more effective than subtitles and aid learners (especially B2+) in their vocabulary development. Comedies, dramas, thrillers and instructional programmes are more popular genres than documentaries and news. Autonomous language learners pay greater attention to linguistic details while watching the videos in comparison to class-based learners. The benefits from caption video-viewing are closely related to the learners’ attitudes and language level.

In Chapter 13, “Songs and music”, Karen M. Ludke discusses how music supports foreign language learning, as it forms a bridge between formal and ILL (Cheung 2001). Learning through music improves learners’ listening comprehension, speaking and pronunciation, vocabulary knowledge while it increases literacy and grammar skills as well as cultural awareness.

Kristen H. Perry and Annie M. Moses in Chapter 14, “Mobility, media, and multiplicity: Immigrants’ informal language learning via media” outline studies which show that immigrants’ ILL through media is self-initiated. Their learning goals and the media they use depend on their age, nationality, job, languages they speak, reasons for migration, technical skills, cultural context, the social capital, media preferences and study strategies. Immigrants’ media choices should be taken into account by both educators and educational designers, as they provide valuable insight about their educational needs, strategies and existing knowledge.

In Chapter 15, “Service sector work and informal language learning”, Hania Janta and Stefan D. Keller focus on studies about foreign workers language learning in their work environment. They classify the communication strategies employees use in high interaction style (listening genre, active listening, interacting with customer, negative feedback, socializing) and low interaction style (use of cheat sheets, interpreters, non-verbal communication). Businesses may also employ strategies to accommodate employees’ language needs (i.e. language provision, newsletters, posters, bilingual employees translating, allocation of different tasks to employees with lower proficiency level, mixing of ethnic groups).

Jana Roos and Howard Nicholas in Chapter 16, “Linguistic landscapes and additional language development” offer an overview of studies according to which linguistic landscapes are used as pedagogical tools to raise learners’ language awareness and engagement. They focus on Roos and Nicholas (2019) and Starks et al (2019) to exemplify how linguistic landscapes can be incorporated in children and adult language teaching.

Montserrat Iglesias in Chapter 17, “Language tourism and second language acquisition in informal learning contexts” explores the language gains for language tourists: oral development, communicative and pragmatic competence. Several factors affect language improvement: learners’ personality, attitudes and motivation. The extent to which they interact with their host families or their integration in various social networks play a huge role. The accommodation format (i.e. host family, student residence) and leisure activities may have a positive effect on language learning, cultural and social integration and identity transformation. Language learning is performed in various out-of-class environments (host families, internships, volunteering schemes, travelling summer schools, Erasmus+ programme).

Part IV: International case studies of informal language learners

In Chapter 18, “Hong Kong and informal language learning”, Chun Lai and Boning Lyu present literature findings about learners’ engagement in ILL in Hong Kong. Learners participate in parent or teacher-initiated receptive activities. Enjoyment and interest play a decisive role in their out-of-class activities, with a preference for private ones. Out-of-class learning ecologies are constructed on the basis of learners’ personal and social worlds and schooling stages. Their choices are pragmatically and socially driven (i.e. high academic performance, not reframing from the values of Confucianism).

Ju Seong Lee in Chapter 19, “An emerging path to English in Korea: Informal digital learning of English” (IDLE) explains that governmental policies placed emphasis on English as part of the country’s educational system. Korean students learn the language for extrinsic and instrumental purposes. Various technological tools are incorporated in the teaching process. Learners who use digital resources have a positive attitude toward cross-cultural situations and acquire more knowledge. IDLE activities—which have emotional advantages for students— can be implemented in a three-stage continuum: incorporate existing technologies for supplementary purpose (p. 297), implement IDLE projects as part of mandatory extracurricular activities, construct student-specific orientated IDLE programmes based on an inventory of digital devices/resources and a student survey about their needs and interests.

In Chapter 20, “Informal English learning among Moroccan Youth”, Mark Dressman presents the findings of his three-year study about English language learning in Morocco. Students consciously use social media and other digital resources (tv, internet, interaction with tourists), alongside formal instruction, to enhance their learning. This has a positive effect on their oral proficiency. Girls are first acquainted with English through pop-songs and television, whereas boys through satellite television. They then attend classes in high school or receive private tuition. Students face difficulties in their ILL, e.g. internet speed and reliability, out-of-date computers and mobiles.

Pia Sundqvist in Chapter 21, “Sweden and informal language learning”, discusses foreign language learning in multilingual Sweden. English is the predominant second language. Platforms, applications (Duolingo) and internet videogames are typical instances of ILL. There is a strong interest in learning Spanish through listening to music and watching tv. ILL for French, Chinese, Spanish and Korean includes watching tv or films, listening to music, reading manga. No substantial research has been conducted as far as ILL in Norwegian, Russian and Italian is concerned.

Meryl Kusyk discusses “Informal English learning in France” in Chapter 22. According to the findings of her study, university students in France who learn English engage in different sets of online ILL activities (i.e. watch series/films, listen to music, play games). The rate and the reasons for their engagement are not explicitly related to language learning. The chapter concludes with a presentation of the results of a longitudinal study about a student’s written language development.

Part V: Informal learning and formal contexts

Sarah J. McCarthey, Idalia Nuñez and Chaehyun Lee in Chapter 23, “Translanguaging across contexts”, offer a brief overview of translanguaging and its critiques (i.e. for minority languages) prior to presenting a number of studies about oral and written translanguaging taking place in formal educational settings as well as home environments and communities. Reference is made to two studies about Spanish-English and Korean-English translanguaging.

In Chapter 24, Katerina Zourou offers “A critical review of social networks for language learning beyond the classroom”. She identifies three social media features; user participation, openness and network effects. Social networking which is pervasive in mobile-assisted language learning and game-based learning offers language learners a wide range of possibilities both in formal as well as ILL settings. The chapter concludes with a note on future research which should focus on agency and openness.

Binbin Zheng and Chin-Hsi Lin in Chapter 25, “Digital writing in informal settings among multilingual language learners” show how language learners’ engagement in online out-of-classroom settings (i.e. blogs, Twitter, messages, online games) may have a positive impact on their writing development. Such activities help students develop their identities, motivate them, increase their writing autonomy and provide opportunities for feedback (corrective or content). Thorne and Reinhardt’s (2008) “bridging activities” model can bridge the gap between in and out-of-school literacy activities. Nevertheless, the implications of such a framework for teachers, students and instructional design should be addressed.

In Chapter 26, “Extensive reading for statistical learning”, Doreen E. Ewert overviews studies which show that extensive reading (ER) supports learners’ reading comprehension, fluency and vocabulary development. It may also be beneficial to students’ listening comprehension, writing and grammar skills. ER can be implemented as a course component, an independent course or a co-curricular self-study activity. Teachers play a crucial role in the implementation of such programmes; they train students or keep track of their reading. Frequently observed obstacles during the implementation process relate to students’ reluctancy to independent reading or their lack of motivation, difficulties teachers face on finding appropriate reading material or the emphasis which is placed on testing and assessment.

Chapter 27, “Leveraging technology to integrate informal language learning within classroom settings”, Philip Hubbard discusses the short and long-term benefits of the integration of ILL in class (i.e. student autonomy, life-long learning). Teachers play a significant role in learner self-regulation, motivation and training. Online material should be carefully selected on the basis of topic familiarity, text and visual support and the level’s appropriateness. Tools for identifying form and meaning include subtitles, transcripts, online dictionaries and vocabulary profiling, whereas pre- and post-listening, transcription, slowing speech and toggling subtitles are useful techniques and procedures. Reflective reports, tutorials, collaborative debriefings and advice to future peers promote ILL.

Dennis Murphy Odo in Chapter 28, “Connecting informal and formal language learning”, discusses the constructs of ILL; autonomy, identity agency, motivation, metacognition, teacher confidence in the learners’ capabilities, teacher inspiration for learners’ independence and self-sufficiency. Out-of-class autonomous learning (AL) can be implemented by distance and tandem learning as well as online ILL of English. In-class AL is achieved by collaborative and cooperative learning. Participation in online learning communities--whether these are language-enthusiasts or online and fan communities--further foster AL. Additionally, various resources are available: online polyglots, learners of different languages, language teachers, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, online forum, commercial language learning websites. The chapter concludes with a brief note on how these informal language teaching resources can be integrated in the classroom.

Part VI: The present and future of informal language learning

In Chapter 29, “Digital translation: Its potential and limitations for informal language learning”, Helen Slatyer and Sarah Forget offer a review of machine-assisted translation. The use of translation apps for language learning depends on the language learners’ types (academic versus informal) and their proficiency levels. They use apps to support their learning process: for vocabulary and grammar learning, reading and understanding, and pronunciation. Apps’ availability, fast access and multiple usage (dictionary for spelling check, meaning, and synonyms) are some of their advantages. Nevertheless, there are also disadvantages, i.e. lower-level students make grammatical/pragmatic mistakes as they cannot evaluate the input. The potential of machine translation is discussed by comparing the translating power of four apps (Google Translate, iTranslate, DeepL, Readlang).

Robert Godwin-Jones in Chapter 30 discusses “Future directions in informal language learning”. Research should focus on longitudinal studies and the ways migrants and refugees develop their language skills. Such projects will provide rich data--partly due to the linguistic superdiversity of our days--including real-world contexts for both language and cultural learning. Technological advancements offer ample opportunities for recreational, game and media learning. Students use commercial language learning platforms (Duolingo, Babbel, learning social networking sites). All these modalities should be incorporated by teachers in classrooms, following the three-level material creation (Barcomb et al 2017): “adaptable, modifiable, teacher-created materials” (p. 464). ILL scenarios are briefly discussed. It is shown that language learning is superfluous and autonomous.

In Chapter 31, “Last words: Naming, framing, and challenging the field”, Geoffrey Sockett and Denyze Toffoli highlight the complexity of ILL. They discuss complex dynamic system theory and self-determination theory as frameworks which best account for ILL. The interdisciplinarity of the field can be seen by the fact that ILL is part of education, second language acquisition and TESOL. The chapter concludes with notes on the methodological challenges for future research (i.e. collecting data from learners who are not involved in classroom setting) and topics (e.g. target groups--refugees, heritage and older learners--and languages not previously studied).


The volume offers a complete guide to informal language learning, as it approaches the field from different perspectives. Each chapter includes ample references to studies and examples which help the reader grasp a better understanding of the topic and get ideas about the implementation of ILL projects and/or the integration of ILL in formal settings, especially due to the technological affordances. It is certainly a source of reference to teachers who wish to challenge their formal language teaching setting. The chapters identify areas which have not previously studied or have received little attention in the literature, so it may also serve as a research guide. The book is well-written, user-friendly and easy to follow. Its content and structure appeal to both students and language instructors.


Barcomb, M., Grimshaw, J. and Cardoso, W. (2017). “I can’t program! Customizable mobile language-learning resources for researchers and practitioners”. Languages 2 (8): 1-15.

Benson, P. (2011). “Language learning and teaching beyond the classroom: An introduction to the field” In P. Benson and H. Reinders (Eds), Beyond the language classroom. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 7-16.

Cheung, C.-K. (2001). “The use of popular culture, as a stimulus to omotivate secondary students’ English learning in Hong Kong”. ELT Journal 55 (1): 55-61.

Chik, A. (2014). “Digital gaming and language learning: Autonomy and community”. Language, learning and technology 18 (2): 85-100.

Chik, A. (2018). “Autonomy and digital practices”. In A. Chik, N. Aoki and R. Smith (Eds.), Language learning and teaching: new research agendas. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 73-92.

Krystalli, P. (2011). An evaluation model for educational on-line computer games for foreign language teaching and learning. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafe’s, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Marlowe & Company.

Peirce, C. S. (1995). “Logic as semiotic: The theory of signs”. In J. Buchler (Ed.), Philosophical writing of Peirce. New York: Dover. pp. 98-119.

Roos, J. and Nicholas, H. (2019). “Using young learners’ language environments for EFL learning: Ways of working with linguistic landscapes”. In J. Enever and P. Driscoll (Eds.), Policy and practice in early language learning”. AILA review.

Starks, D., Macdonald, S., Nicholas, H. and Roos, J. (2019). “Connecting worlds: Linguistic landscapes as transformative curriculum artifacts in schools and universities”. In P. Mickan and I. Wallace (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of language education curriculum design”. New York: Routledge.

Thorne, S. L. and Reinhardt, J. (2008). “Bridging activities, new media literacies, and advanced foreign language proficiency”. CALICO Journal 25 (3): 558-572.
Alexandra Galani is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Primary Education at the University of Ioannina (Greece). Her main research interests are in morphology, its interfaces, language acquisition and learning.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781119472445
Pages: 550
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