Forget the days of pocket dictionaries and in-person classes. There’s a new way to learn a foreign language.

Chatbots, a relatively recent form of artificial intelligence that can interact with humans, is the newest way to try your hand at a foreign language or brush up on your linguistic skills. And earlier this month language-learning app Duolingo announced it had jumped on the AI bandwagon.

Duolingo now allows you to speak with a computerized personality to learn French, German or Spanish on an iPhone. The app’s developers hope to eventually implement more languages into the bot feature.

The new function allows users to send text directly to a bot in an instant messaging format, forcing language learners to engage in a quasi-conversational environment.

Although there are still some of the expected errors that come with automated translation, the news of the new feature has caught the eye of many in the language and tech industry.

Conversations in the app relate to specific topics based the “personality” you choose to speak with. For instance, you might chat about food and recipes if you choose to talk to a “chef” bot. You’ll talk about healthcare if you select a “doctor” personality.

In the future, Duolingo hopes to add a voice feature, which would allow users to speak directly to the bots without typing out their conversations.

Mechanical Humans

Chatbots are becoming a popular way to streamline transactions on the internet. For instance, you might send a message to Uber via Facebook to request a ride. The technology could also help you make a purchase online.

Of course, robots can’t understand humans as well as other humans can. And one popular complaint about bot technology is that users regularly get error messages when trying to communicate with a computer. In an attempt to remedy this, Duolingo notifies a user before he or she sends text if it’s not recognized.

Too Awkward

Duolingo’s founder, Luis Von Ahn, told the Guardian part of the impetus behind using the bots was to quell the embarrassment of those wanting to learn a language but were too shy to try their skills in front of a native speaker.

With Duolingo, the only person you can embarrass communicating with a robot is yourself. And although having a human language partner might be helpful for some, circumventing this interpersonal communication could see more people try to engage in other languages.

Peril or Advancement?

What does it mean that we’d rather speak to robots than other humans to learn a language? Does our sense of “embarrassment” mean we’ll eventually prefer only talking to chatbots?

Stephen Hawking said AI could be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity;” and, continued advancements in the technology mean we’ll most likely find out what AI’s complete manifestation looks like sooner rather than later.

Language tech enthusiasts continue to push Machine Translation (MT) and other automated language tools as a welcome sign of progress. Just last month, Google announced its advances in Google Translate thanks to neural machine translation, phasing out phrase-based machine translation.

As the machines get smarter, will humans progress with them? Or will we struggle to keep up?

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IT Machine Translation Technology

Jake Schild

Jake Schild

A former newspaper reporter and native Minnesotan, Jake Schild is a staff writer in the marketing department at ULG.

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