Apps are replacing teachers as technology plays a bigger role in language education.
Ma Ruining has been studying English for a long time, but her teachers are not in the classroom－they're in the palms of her hands.
Ma has several English learning apps, which cater to users who want to improve their English proficiency, from listening to speaking, loaded onto her smartphone.
Although she's tired from eight hours' office work, Ma, who is a product manager at the Xinjiang branch of the China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database in Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, does not spend her leisure time just relaxing watching TV dramas as she used to.
She takes out her mobile phone and begins to practice her spoken English with an app called Liulishuo ("speaking fluently" in English), which offers solutions to people looking to improve their competency in spoken English.
A 10-second audio clip by native speakers is then played on the app as Ma starts her lesson, after which the app asks her to imitate the piece. The app then evaluates her performance on a scale from 1 to 100 and gives feedback on her weaknesses to allow her to make improvements.
"If you score more than 90, it means your pronunciation is good," says Ma, who has been practicing colloquial English every day on the phone for the past six months.
"At first, I usually only get a score of 70 as I often mispronounce," adds Ma, 26. "I graduated two years ago, but I wanted to improve my spoken English to study or travel abroad some day in the future."
Ma first heard about Liulishuo from an article shared on WeChat in August. She paid 499 yuan ($78) for the complete course which lasted for six months. The advertisement said if the student completes the course with an overall score of 90 or over, they will be fully reimbursed the fee.
"I planned to buy another course with the reimbursement," Ma says.
"It seems to be an indispensable part of my daily life to practice English with my phone. As my study hours gradually accumulated, I've become more confident in speaking English."
It's show time
English is one of the most highly emphasized subjects both in school and at home in China, and, a good mastery of English is highly valued by employers in the country's job market.
Ma is just one of the many young Chinese who have switched from studying English in the classroom to the palms of their hands, an emerging trend created by various apps such as Liulishuo and Baicizhan.
Among the education apps in Apple's app store in China, English learning apps make up half of the slots of top 10 paid-for apps, and four slots in the list of top 20 free apps.
Baicizhan, which helps people remember words, is the most popular free app in the Apple store, receiving 15,800 comments from users, followed by Liulishuo, which has 5,600 comments.
Wang Yi, CEO of Liulishuo, claims that almost 1 million people are using their advanced auto-scoring engine of spoken English developed in Silicon Valley, half of whom are from the post-1990's generation.
Wang, a former product manager at Google who returned to China in 2012, found that despite Chinese students' ability to achieve high grades in written tests, most of them could not match the equivalent score when it came to tests in spoken English.
"This presents a problem," says Wang. "It is mainly caused by the traditional teaching methodology in which a single teacher faces a class of at least 30 students, making it impossible for teachers to give professional advice to every student. And the expense of having a private teacher is too high for most families."
So, Wang and his partners began to work on a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence to provide self-paced mobile language courses that cater to a wide range of users, from beginners to advanced learners.
In July 2016, Liulishuo introduced the app－an AI English teacher－to its users, with charges ranging between 99 and 966 yuan.
Just as the traditional classroom environment helps creates peer pressure among students, the English-teaching apps tried to recreate similar motivations by encouraging people to share their progress on social networks.
"I intended to enhance my English proficiency for a long time. But it was not until I saw more people begin to share their learning experiences on WeChat that I began to take any action," says Sheng Qian, a postgraduate student of journalism at Peking University.
One day she noticed several of her friends sharing their English-learning app experiences on the popular social networking platform. One of her friends said he has been reading English novels on Mint Reading for 19 days, finishing 19,876 words in total. And the next day, she found that his reading word count had again increased.
"It seems everyone is making progress day by day. I don't want to be left behind," says the 24-year-old.
Influenced by her peers who began to study English on various smartphone apps, she jumped on the bandwagon in December.
She spent 628 yuan to purchase courses on both Liulishuo and Mint Reading, a small program installed on WeChat by Baicizhan, which promises to help users to finish reading three English novels within a hundred days.
The novels are mostly English classics, such as Jane Eyre and The Call of the Wild. Reading unabridged English versions of those books may sound daunting to many Chinese students, but the course divides them into short episodes of around 10-minute segments of daily reading.
Another online English-course app popular among Sheng and her friends is Cheese Pie Listening, which focuses on enhancing people's listening skills by studying English movies without subtitles. Courses are also split into small segments, which can be finished in less than 20 minutes and delivered to users every morning, making it convenient for them to make full use of their fragmented time.
As long as users finish their assignments every day and share the results with friends on the social platform, the companies will send them gifts, including the original English books.
"It is good to practice every day," says Sheng, adding that she found herself becoming more generous toward different types of English courses.
Even Chinese internet users who are accustomed to free content and normally reluctant to pay for things online, now find themselves paying for English learning apps.
Consulting agency for the mobile internet sector, iiMedia Research, published a report on the paid knowledge market in China in December 2017, estimating that 188 million Chinese users were paying for online learning services by the end of 2017.
Leading internet startup service provider, 36 Kr, estimated in May 2017 that the business volume for the Chinese knowledge sector would exceed 30 billion yuan for the year.
And English-language learning accounted for a large percentage of that total.
"It is obvious that some English learning apps have gained popularity by providing users with an enjoyable learning experience and a satisfying learning outcome," says Ye Hua, an associate professor at the department of sociology and social work at Sun Yat-sen University.
"It is becoming a trend among young Chinese people to study English using apps," Ye says.
Zhai Xuesong, a postdoctoral researcher at the school of educational technology at Beijing Normal University, says that when people learn in fragmented time slots, they usually prefer to use "infotainment" platforms. The majority of apps therefore provide users with interactive learning materials such as movies, novels, and other entertainment-based learning models such as voice-recognition, which stimulate people's interest and keep them engaged.
Besides offering incentives, Mint Reading and Cheese Pie Listening both use online chat groups for students to communicate with their teachers and ask questions－adding another level of interactivity into the passive learning process.
"The teachers always respond to our questions very quickly," says Shen Qi, a student in tourism, hotel and event management at the University of Queensland, Australia, who uses learning apps for both listening and reading courses. She recently paid Mint Reading for a second 100-day reading course.
Passing her language exams last June, however, the 24-year-old Hangzhou native found that to learn English properly, she still had a long way to go before she could fully understand what her professors were teaching in class.
And despite her English-speaking learning environment, Shen often felt embarrassed to ask her peers questions about language. Instead she found she could more easily understand grammar issues using the Chinese explanations provided to her by her online teacher.
"I pretty much enjoy the atmosphere these online courses create for us," she says.
"Every time you raise a question in the group chat, not only the teacher will explain it clearly, but my classmates will also join the discussion. What you learn is always beyond your expectations."
Shen also enjoys sharing her new skills with friends and family on WeChat, where she draws inspiration from people's encouragement.
"Learners who share their learning outcomes with family and friends online find it enhances their productivity," says Zhai.
He believes that the online learning community is helpful for fragmented learning, one of his findings from his years of studying the phenomenon of "ubiquitous learning".
A supporting role
Unlike traditional teaching methods, online community learning creates a "flipped classroom" model, where learners discuss their questions and experiences. Teachers are no longer the knowledge deliverers, but instead they play the role of instructive organizers who deal with students' ideas.
"With the improvement of educational technology, we are encouraging students to complete their basic learning using a variety of multimedia resources by themselves, and bring their questions to the classroom for further investigation," says Zhai.
"This decentralized approach to learning helps students to improve their problem-solving abilities, sharpens their critical thinking and promotes innovation. Moreover, the online community makes it easier for students to overcome shyness and participate in discussions more actively."
While Zhang Xiaodong, an English teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University, welcomes the advantages mobile apps bring to learning, she still has concerns over what sideeffects apps might bring in the long run.
"English learning apps make it convenient for people to study English in fragmented time slots, but it can at best serve as a supplement to classroom-based studies rather than be used as a substitute," Zhang says.
"Sometimes, even though the situations are similar, there are subtle differences between the use of English, which can neither be distinguished or explained clearly by apps or online teachers."
Zhang also emphasizes the importance of face-to-face oral practice, pointing out that an overreliance on the virtual situations provided by apps may hamper practical communication in people's daily lives.