An Artificially Intelligent Language Tutor

Hi! Me again. Still digging into the different ways artificial intelligence can and will impact our future. There’s a whole lot of hand wringing and worrying out there, and while I’m not saying there aren’t big concerns, I am saying that there’s also a whole lot to be excited about. Case in point? Using AI to learn a language.

I’ve been Duo Lingoing my way through Czech for the past 550 days or so, and that’s been entertaining enough. I’m not entirely sure how much Czech I’m actually learning, but if I ever need to talk about how Katerina loves successful spiders, then I am most definitely prepared. Duo Lingo does a great job gamifying language learning and inspiring you to keep at it day after day. But (at least for Czech) it doesn’t really offer anything in the way of practice actually having a conversation.

So this morning, I turned to ChatGPT to see how well it would handle being my language tutor. (Note: I have subscribed to ChatGPT for at least a month or two, as I want to put it through its paces. So far, I have not regretted that subscription in the slightest.) So I gave it the following prompt: “I am trying to keep my German up. You’re a helpful German tutor. Ask me questions in German and respond in German. When necessary, correct my german when I make mistakes in my responses.”

Without batting an eye, it immediately shifted to German and was off and running. I chose German, because I wanted to have an actual clue how accurate it was being. The answer? Definitely accurate enough, since I didn’t notice any problems at all. I typed back and forth with it for a while, but again, that wasn’t giving me experience speaking the language. So I switched over to the app on my phone, where I knew how to easily turn on the text to speech function.

It didn’t even bat an eye. It remembered what I’d been talking about on my laptop, and we continued the conversation. And you know what? It really felt like I was talking to an actual German. I know that, because when I speak with an actual German, my tongue ties up because I become anxious about sounding like an idiot. I had that same feeling with ChatGPT at first. But as we went on, it started to really dawn on me that I could tell it whatever I wanted, with as bad as grammar as I had, and it would just patiently correct me and offer suggestions.

So I switched to Slovak (mainly because I still feel like I’m better at Slovak than Czech). I gave it this prompt: “I am just beginning to speak Slovak, and I need help improving my vocabulary. You’re a patient, helpful Slovak tutor. Let’s have a conversation in Slovak. When I don’t know a word, I’ll write it in English. Tell me what those words mean, and continue the conversation in Slovak.” (Yes, those prompts all sound like I’m about to role play or do some improv, but AI really works better if you tell it clearly who you want it to be.)

It did exactly as I asked, no problem, except it started rattling off Slovak that was beyond me. I told it (in English) to scale back to something easier, and it changed the direction of the conversation. I still couldn’t understand everything, so I told it to repeat everything it said to me in English after it said it in Slovak. (It even put those remarks in parentheses, all on its own.) When I didn’t know how to say something, I put English words instead, and it cheerfully helped me know how to put it properly. We had a chat about Groundhog Day (of course). I didn’t try it in actual speech, because I didn’t feel ready for that yet, but I’m confident it could handle it.

That’s all from the same tool that will write an Elizabethan sonnet about batman using only words that start with the letter B. (It couldn’t quite pull it off, but it was a valiant attempt.)

Beneath black battlements, bold Batman broods,
Baleful but brave, battling bane’s brood.
Beneath beleaguered bastions, beguiled,
Bewitched by blight, his burden, a bitter bile.

Beside bleak byways, brigands boldly bite,
Beckoning Batman, beacon of the night.
Brandishing batarangs, he battles foes,
Banishing blight, his bravery bellows.

Byzantine byplays, beneath Gotham’s beams,
Betrayals build, beguiling dreams.
But Batman bears burdens, beneath his breast,
Bound by belief, his battle never rests.

Behold, the bat! A blemish on the black,
Beloved by brethren, banishing the bleak and back.

It’s the same tool that will draw pictures or help you with math homework or plan a day out in Glasgow. The amount of things it can do already, even if it never improves at all, is astonishing. Go ahead and give it a try on language lessons if you want to give an old language some practice, or want to try a new one.

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