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Can artificial intelligence replace a language teacher?

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

An Artificial Intelligence programme might be able to read the body language of a student and recognise confusion or hesitation, it might repeat an explanation or example, but it won’t be equipped with the psychological tools to properly reassure them about their own learning pace and progress.

An AI programme can apparently offer some grammatical explanations following a student’s mistake but what if the latter still doesn’t understand? There isn’t just one way to explain things, fortunately, and it takes many tools and strategies to ensure knowledge is acquired properly and everything is clear.

An AI programme does not have the ability to gauge if a student has had a bad week or isn’t feeling well – especially if said student doesn’t mention it – and needs both a boost and a lighter lesson.

AIs offer a wide range of language contexts, wider and wider by the day, it seems, and certainly wider than good old-fashioned language course books or grammar books, but neither can cover the scope of the human brain.

Language learning is an active process which requires another human being in the same room (whether the latter is virtual or not), who will have such a scope, which goes beyond the capability of a programme. And isn’t that fact reassuring?

The fascination with AI isn’t new, but as always when looking at technology and advances which make science fiction feel one step closer to reality, we fail to engage with the present moment and with one another. In many ways, to some, human interaction is infinitely harder and that is why flesh and blood teachers are crucial.

Why do we learn languages? Interestingly, this seemingly superfluous question rarely seems to be at the heart of discussions about the process or the tools being developed.

We learn languages to communicate with other human beings, to engage with them and with their culture. To express ourselves, to be seen, heard and, in turn, to enjoy discovering other human beings. And in a post-pandemic world which feels increasingly scary, we are in need - more than ever - of proper human connection.

While you can improve your back hand by repeatedly hitting the same ball against a wall, you can also pick up bad habits. Said wall might be plastered with advice and incentives to hit the ball harder and better, with targets to meet, with explanations about wind and placement, with pictures of Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray in action, it still doesn’t replace an actual sparring partner and a coach. Or, as it happens, a timely metaphor.

Don't hesitate to send me your questions.

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