In 2002, U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan reported problems with the culture and dialects of the regions to which they were destined. With the support of DARPA funds, Alelo began working on the first original tactical language e-learning games.
Today, the company’s own website indicates that its system has proven since 2007 to be effective in reducing traditional learning time from several months to less than 80 hours using virtual scenario-based software. Its virtues include making it easier for Marines based in Iraq to understand Iraqi culture, gestures and situational language.
Parallel to this military experience, in some Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan there has always been a great interest in teaching children to practice languages with social robots. The study on the use of robots in language learning, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program and published in January 2018, confirms that children enjoy learning languages more with a robot than with conventional methods.
According to this study, “Children who studied with the robot said they were more motivated and satisfied with the learning materials, less anxious and had higher self-esteem than their counterparts who studied without the robot. However, the same study concludes that greater effectiveness in teaching languages using robots in classrooms has not been demonstrated.
Motivate with voice assistants
Joshua Underwood is Coordinator of Learning Technologies at the British Council (Bilbao), Lecturer at the University of Deusto, independent trainer in digital competences and one of the main researchers of the use of voice assistants in language teaching. Underwood shares his experiences in order to promote the use of new technologies, especially voice assistants, among teachers and language learners.
“It always surprises me, when I talk to language teachers, especially English teachers, that there aren’t many people using this kind of technology, not even voice recognition.
According to Underwood, when a teacher is faced with a group of students of the same nationality who have a common mother tongue, it is very difficult for them to communicate with each other in the language they are learning.
“Students have no motivation to speak English, no reason to do so beyond the demands of the teacher and assessment. Speaking in another language about a specific topic when you can do much better in your first language doesn’t make much sense and isn’t very motivating. Talking to Google, Amazon or whoever, that is, with a machine, is more fun and can motivate more.
Answering specific questions such as “how big the moon is”, solving mathematical problems or spelling specific words are some utilities of voice assistants that are being used more successfully in the educational community, even though when one enters a class for the first time causes some confusion.
“They don’t know what it is. I ask them what do you think it is? What do you think it is capable of doing? Then I say something, or ask Alexa what time she’s going to do today. At first, they get a little scared, but then they want to try it.”
With this introduction, the trainer aims to challenge the learners to ask and investigate what the assistant is able to do.
Other researchers and enthusiasts of the use of new technologies in classrooms like Bill Selak are doing similar experiments, using the assistants to spell, check information or solve mathematical problems. Exercises that are also used in language teaching because, according to Joshua Underwood, it is about the student talking and interacting with the assistant and doing homework with him is good practice.
In the podcast on using Amazon Echo in class, Selak talks about the experience at Hillbrook School, where he is Director of Technology, using this assistant. “Being able to spell correctly empowers students to take possession of their own spelling,” says Selak, who believes this skill is essential for mastering a language.
Tools for language learning in voice assistants
On August 30th, Google announced one of the great novelties for its voice assistant: its ability to be bilingual. Google Assistant is able to recognize any of these language pairs: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese and that is a good help in language learning, while a breakthrough over Siri or Alexa, its main competitors.
In addition, both Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa have translation functionality in different languages and in real time.
But if there is a voice assistant that stands out for its educational features, this is Alexa. Alexa Skills brings together a series of tools focused on education for both teachers and students.
With Daily Dose, 34 different languages can be learned in two different ways: learning a new word in just one minute with the “Word of the Day” or enjoying the professional 10-20 minute “Lesson of the Day” on a daily basis.
Say Hi Language Learning teaches Spanish, French, German and Danish. It also offers audio conversation lessons.
Chineasy is a tool for learning Chinese that offers lessons in 7-minute podcast format. In general, they are simple and enjoyable podcasts.
And if you are looking for something different, with Language Tutor you have it. You can learn Spanish, French, Italian, and even Australian English!
Finally, another of the most outstanding and innovative features is Cleo. Okay, it’s not a tool for learning languages but for teaching Alexa to speak new languages or understand new words, but… well-used can also be a way to increase and improve our vocabulary.
Challenges of using voice technologies in education
One of the difficulties in using voice assistants in language teaching is managing students’ frustrations when they do not get the technology to react as they wish.
Although attendees have come a long way in recent months and now detect sounds that are very difficult for language learners to hear, they often continue to misunderstand the instructions given to them, which can sometimes be a bit frustrating.
Recently the British newspaper Daily Mail echoed a study of how the British are changing the way they speak so that attendees can understand them. The news highlights that 79% of Britons with regional accents are modifying their way of speaking to be understood by technologies such as Siri, Google Home or Alexa.
However, the biggest challenge facing voice technologies in language teaching is to demonstrate their effectiveness as an educational element. While there is positive research and evidence on student motivation, there is still not enough information to evaluate their effectiveness. A matter of time.
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