Chatbots Could Help Learners and Teachers in Language Education

language, teacher, bots, robots

More and more we find ourselves imagining the ways in which chatbots can assist us in our day-to-day lives. They have synergy with small tasks in our consumer habits and there is general agreement on their use value in ecommerce, healthcare and financial services. We understand that chatbots have commercial benefits, but when it comes to personal enrichment and individual gains, there is still much to be explored.

AI powered language teachers are on the agenda for big players such as Duolingo, who since 2018 have stated that just because bots have been removed from the iOS app, “bots are not gone forever” and that “conversations are coming back in a more integrated way.” In 2016, Duolingo bots existed in three languages: French, Spanish, and German, and catered to native English speakers. They were removed two years later, perhaps to redesign for a less error prone application. Nevertheless, advances in machine learning and corpus algorithms mean that fluent AI learning tools are becoming a realistic possibility.

Chatbots as useful tools for language learners

Due to the inherent convenience of chatbots, learners can practise grammar and vocabulary on the go, on any device, anywhere at any time. For learners who would like to put in extra time outside of the classroom, or for those who don’t have the resources to attend language classes, AI language teachers can fit easily into a personal routine. Chatbots for Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) have the added benefit of not being human, which means they can focus on the same language point endlessly for as long as the user needs. Most importantly, for shy learners the pressure to get it right in front of another person is eliminated, as learners need not be afraid to make errors.

Technology already has a prominent place in language teaching, and particularly for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, virtual environments, gamification, and interactive touch screen learning methods for targeted language practice have proven to be effective classroom tools. Chatbots are a natural fit for supplementary learning outside of class, where students can engage in self-evaluation through the availability of conversation transcripts. This means that they have a record of their errors, of the things that they know, and the areas that they need to improve on. The capabilities of chatbots have come a long way and today it is very easy to embed audio and video within conversations, thus enabling the learner to practise listening skills, as well as reading and writing skills.

Finally, learners can potentially use AI language teachers such as chatbots at any level of competency. While they may be best suited to learners of an intermediate to advanced level, beginners can still supplement their in class learning with simple phonetic and spelling exercises at home. Take the Japanese alphabets for example, two of which (hiragana and katakana) are phonetic and need to be memorised in order to understand Japanese, in conjunction with the third alphabet Kanji. Interactive programmes which allow users to practise alphabet phonetics – without becoming exhausted by repetition – can be a valuable tool for beginners. Apps like Duolingo do have the ability to listen and give a verdict on users phonetics when spoken into the microphone, so the building blocks for a useful language teaching chatbot already exist.

Chatbots as useful tools for language teachers

The dystopian narrative of robots displacing humans from their occupations may not occupy the future of language teachers – in fact, there are a lot of ways in which CALL and face to face learning can complement each other, and become inseparable methods of learning and teaching. Language teaching bots can be accurate measurements of a user’s grasp of vocabulary, spelling and grammar. But they lack a human element and colloquial contexts. The region specific idioms, slang words, dialects, and casual daily alterations to sounds and structures made by native speakers are too numerous and too complex for chatbots to convey.

It boils down to the programme’s language acquisition process. Traditionally, language is taught to the system with specific parses, sentence structures and meanings. This means that the predictable is understood, but unpredictable, variable natural human speech is difficult to pin down. An observation-based parser developed by MIT might be a viable solution. But, where does this leave language teachers? Still in the classroom, and still adding value to students’ learning experience.

Chatbots can be a tool for administering tests in class and at home, and the transcripts of these conversations can inform teachers about the student’s individual needs, as well as helping inform relevant lesson plans. Language teachers themselves are key voices in the design process for these chatbots, in ensuring accuracy, and that the syllabi are both appropriate to each learner’s level, and that they are reaching the right standards for learners hoping to sit language proficiency exams. By embracing chatbots as valuable, complementary tools in the classroom, language teachers are ensuring that their methods continue to evolve with a changing industry, and continue to provide a high quality service to students.

Drawing from my own experience of working as an ESL teacher in a language school, we were taught from day one that the needs of the student are of the highest priority and that it is our job to put all our efforts into creating an engaging and useful lesson that hits all of the necessary language points. The aim is to help students move up a level in their fluency so that they can have better conversations. Chatbots can be a time saver for teachers who are required to spend extra unpaid hours crafting lesson plans for the following week. Why not allow students to spend 20 minutes on a device, in pairs, practising vocabulary or pronunciation? And then evaluate their progress afterwards one on one. In this situation, both students and teachers are gaining from an integrated classroom-chatbot experience.

The future of chatbots in foreign language learning appears promising, with practical benefits for students and teachers. Reflecting on the entire chatbot landscape and its quest for indistinguishable human intelligence, chatbots for language learners and teachers could be the most appropriate sandbox for developers, because they share a similar goal of perfect fluency.

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