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The Impact of Advanced AI on the Teaching and Learning of Foreign Languages

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, Spanish teacher

Aritificial intelligence (AI) is getting more powerful year after year. Although it will have some positive and some negative effects on foreign language teaching and learning, I believe they will be predominantly positive.

Starting with the potential downsides, students already have easy access to translation tools like Google Translate. This poses a challenge for teachers, who cannot easily determine whether a student’s work is their own. If writing is to happen at all, it must be under the teacher’s supervision in the classroom.  Additionally, some students may question the need for acquiring a second language, arguing that machine translation of written language and machine interpretation of spoken language can adequately facilitate communication with non-English speakers. To motivate students, teachers must emphasize the cultural and cognitive benefits of learning a second language: it promotes cultural understanding, enhances cognitive abilities, and makes you more articulate and a better writer in your native language. Furthermore, machine translation and interpretation may not be always available or trustworthy. Employers are likely to favor candidates with strong second language skills for international business dealings, as direct linguistic communication fosters trust. Professions like medicine or law also rely on unmediated and direct language contact between professionals and patients/clients. If you fall in love with someone who speaks another language, learning your partner’s language is essential to knowing them fully.

On the upside, AI brings multiple advantages to language education. AI systems already approach the conversational competence of native speakers. They can therefore offer valuable speaking, writing, and listening practice. This may be superior to private human tutors, who can be expensive and necessitate scheduling a lesson in advance. AI instructors are available free of charge 24/7. They are consistent in their quality of instruction and can more effectively analyze patterns of errors in a student’s language use and thereby address the student’s learning needs more quickly and efficiently than a human tutor.  AI can also more easily offer personalized instruction, catering to students' interests and proficiency levels. With access to the entire Internet from which to draw topics for study, an AI can pivot to new subjects instantly to accommodate the interests and whims of the learner. Human teachers cannot match this level of flexibility without prior notice and extensive preparation. AI can also dramatically improve the experience of reading foreign language books. An AI can instantly provide the student the meanings for unfamiliar vocabulary, explain culturally and linguistically complex passages, and generate questions about the reading material in real time as the student reads along.  This may deepen the student’s comprehension the second language vocabulary and grammatical structure, as well as salient literary themes, plot, and character development. Accordingly, AI will function as both a second language and literature teacher.

Despite the benefits of AI, it is unlikely to replace human language teachers in the classroom. Many students require human interaction for a comfortable learning experience, adn AIs are likely to miss some of the psychological needs of students that human educators understand well. While AI can significantly enhance language instruction, the presence of a human teacher is essential for empathetic personal guidance. I believe that the future of language education will be a harmonious integration of AI and human instruction.