AI-powered chatbots and the future of language learning

Chatbots are one of the next big things. Facebook’s experimental feature M, Slack’s Slackbot or bot-add ons for existing messengers like Whatsapp and Telegram such as Murdoch or WhatsBot show where we are heading: Into a world of conversational interfaces based on texting. Despite all fancy interaction tech available, texting has evolved as the world population’s most favourite way of interaction. Over the next years, more people will start to have text conversations with machines, so called bots. Conversations that thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning could feel pretty much like those with people from our “human” contact list. Even though sometimes still, what is presented to be a bot actually could be a human.

One area in which I hope that text-based conversational interfaces will flourish is language learning. The other day, I myself acted as a language learning bot, and the results were promising.

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I currently teach Swedish to my girl friend. She has tried a class (but lacks the time to attend), apps such as Duolingo and Memrise (which are great, no doubt), and a traditional course book. But her most prefered method for learning a new language has turned out to be texting. The only thing she needs for it is me (or another volunteer) and a messaging app. We usually use iMessage for this purpose. I sit next to her, with my computer in my lap, and chat with her. She uses her smartphone. I text her tasks, for example to translate sentences or to reply to me in Swedish. Whenever something is unclear, I either write down an explanation or tell her personally. I ask her to translate and pronounce. Afterwards I send her the words/sentences in iMessage for later reference. She also remembers better when she sees things in written form. So far, this approach has shown very good results, and most importantly, she perceives it as much more engaging and fun as other methods.

This system works for us, but obviously it is not scalable. However, it would become scalable if you replace the human teacher with a chatbot. Every language learner has a smartphone and is familiar with using it for messaging. If people would have access to a chatbot which helps them to learn and improve their foreign language skills through conversations, that could once more remove barriers to learning another language. A chatbot which lives inside a preferred messaging app or works through SMS could make it fun to learn and practice. It would adjust to the individual level of knowledge and start from there. It would teach new words and grammar rules at the right moments, ensuring a base-level of motivation and success moments. It could even ask the occasional personal question, possibly establishing an emotional connection with the language learner, so this person would never voluntarily want to stop interacting.

I am not aware of any such service. But if it does not yet exist, my bet and hope is that sooner or later, one of the major language learning apps and services out there will try that idea. It would make for a great lucrative business model. “Get your personal text-based language coach for €5 a month”. Such a system requires quite some investment to develop. But once it is running, it would be highly scalable. In fact, the more active users it has, the better in order to make the AI smarter and to improve the user experience.

Looking at the slow pace with which Facebook, a leader in artificial intelligence research, is introducing its personal assistant M, developing a language learning bot that does not come across as stupid and incompetent might still not be feasible, even less for smaller players with little resources. But my guess is that this will change within the next years. I am very much looking forward to that moment. Language learning is fun, beneficial for personal development and the health of the brain, and important for cross-cultural understanding. Intelligent language-learning chat bots will mark a major step and make it easier than ever to get familiar with a new language.

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5 comments

  1. funnily enough we’re working on something like this at Rikai Labs. It will launch first for WeChat for chinese people to learn english, and other messaging platforms later. Not sure when we’ll get to the swedish version tho, unless you’d like to help :)

      • Well, Duolingo now has a chat bot, as you probably are aware.

        And, even better news (and shamelessly self-promotional as well), our company (Language Hero) is developing a better AI-fueled alternative to chatbots–it’s called conversation with real people.

        It’s guided by AI, and all conversation comes from a database so it’s all translated and grammatically correct–so beginners aren’t sitting there trying to get past Ni Hao.

        AI insures that user choice influences how users move through topics; the system responds to user needs and desires.

        Having a real conversation about real things that really matter with real people beats (with think) beats having dialogs with computer programs. (Well, I do love Kasparov Chess, I admit).

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