The ways in which we learn foreign languages have changed substantially over the past decades. With the rapid development and spread of new technologies, we now have more opportunities than ever before to engage with any language we like in a myriad of ways. There are countless websites and apps that promise to help us learn a language in just 10 minutes per day. There are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), podcasts, and YouTube channels dedicated to teaching foreign languages. However, the emergence of a progressively globalised culture also means that we frequently encounter other languages informally – that is, when our intention is not to learn, but to be entertained: We can stream music, films, and TV series in countless languages with subtitles in our mother tongue, follow (video)bloggers from other countries, and use social networking sites to connect with people from around the globe.
With an ever-increasing number of people throughout the world gaining access to the internet, the ready availability of online foreign language resources seems to be a great potential equalizer among language learners from vastly different backgrounds. For example, learners living in communities where their target language may not be spoken widely (or even taught at all) now have not only unprecedented access to a brimming pot of educational and non-educational media, but also opportunities to immerse themselves in virtual communities, where they can freely communicate and collaborate with other speakers or learners of their target language.
Recent studies indeed indicate that informal online language practices are becoming more and more common – and that they are an effective way to learn! Research in Sweden, Belgium, and Finland found correlations between the time that pupils spent engaging with popular English-language media and their knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar. There is even some evidence that it may be more effective for certain people than traditional classroom learning.
However, the findings of previous research do not unanimously support the conclusion that informal language practices lead to language learning: The correlation between these factors seems to vary (or disappear altogether) depending on a number of variables, including the learners’ gender, socioeconomic background, and their attitude towards language
learning.2 5 Moreover, the explanations that have been offered for these findings so far have been tentative and vague – for example, that boys and girls engage with media ‘in a different way’.3 Nevertheless, researchers seem to agree that there must be something about the nature of informal engagement with foreign-language contents among these different groups that predicts language learning gains.
Therefore, in my doctoral research, I am currently examining in more detail what type of informal online engagement leads to successful language learning. For this purpose, I will model the relationship between language proficiency gains and four dimensions of informal engagement:
- Behavioural: What resources do individuals use to engage with foreign languages and how much time do they spend using these resources?
- Cognitive: Do individuals consciously attempt to learn a new word, phrase or grammatical feature, and how?
- Affective: To what extend do individuals feel enthusiasm for, interest in, and a personal connection to the content with which they engage (e.g. a particular TV series, book, or blog)?
- Social: In how far do individuals interact with other language users (e.g. through commenting, sharing, or messaging)?
A better understanding of the qualities that make informal language learning effective could inform strategies for those wanting to learn a language independently. Of course, not all learning must immediately move into the digital space; this research may also help to expand methods for teaching foreign languages in classroom contexts. Teachers might, for example, wish to address the potential of informal language learning in their classes by teaching students how to effectively engage with informal resources to maximise their learning. In a language class that includes students with widely varying interests, it is often impossible to teach every individual the specific language skills or vocabulary that he or she needs. However, since in informal learning, every learner him- or herself chooses which materials to engage with, it could be a valuable tool for meeting the individual learning needs of every student.
Key words: online learning, informal learning, second language learning, popular media, social networking, engagement
 For an introduction, see:
Sockett, G. (2014). The Online Informal Learning of English. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
 Sundqvist, P. (2011). A possible path to progress: Out-of-school English language learners in Sweden.
In P. Benson & H. Reinders (Eds.), (pp. 106–118). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
 Kuppens, A. H. (2010). Incidental foreign language acquisition from media exposure.
Learning, Media and Technology, 35(1), 65–85.
 Olsson, E. (2011). “Everything I read on the Internet is in English” – On the impact of extramural English on
Swedish 16-year-old pupils’ writing proficiency. Doctoral Thesis. University of Gothenburg.
 Cole, J. (2015). Foreign language learning in the age of the Internet. Doctoral Thesis. University of Oxford.