How AI is changing the way we study languages

On July 25, Columbia professor and New York Times columnist John McWhorter presented readers with an interesting and provocative — perhaps overtly so — question:

Will translation apps make learning foreign languages obsolete?

He quickly answers this question himself, arguing that language learning will never become obsolete. But he does note that the underlying motivation for learning languages is changing.

“Technology is eliminating most of the need to learn foreign languages for more utilitarian purposes,” he writes. “The old-school language textbook scenarios, of people reserving hotel rooms or ordering meals in the language of the country they are visiting … will now be obsolete.”

But it’s not just changing our motivation — it’s also changing the methods by which people learn languages. Upon closing out its Series C round of funding at $120 million, language learning app Preply announced that it would be “doubling down” on generative AI applications. Meanwhile, Duolingo — which is by far the most popular language learning app — incorporated OpenAI’s GPT-4 large language model (LLM) into its app almost immediately upon OpenAI’s announcement that GPT-4 was available to the public.

“Users who subscribe to Duolingo Max — for $30 a month — can access two new features, ‘Explain My Answer’ and ‘Roleplay,’ both of which employ GPT-4 technology to allow users to more actively engage with their target language,” MultiLingual reported back in March.

Duolingo’s using the technology to give users conversational practice and to get access to in-depth, personalized explanations of their grammatical or lexical errors. But language learners can also prompt ChatGPT to perform the same function — all while saving 30 bucks. And it appears that many have already discovered this:

“I tell my Argentinian pal that I’ve been using ChatGPT to practice my Spanish and, excitedly, I explain what it can do,” one language learner wrote for BBC in June. “It can correct my errors, … and it’s able to give me regional variations in Spanish, including Mexican Spanish, Argentinian Spanish and, amusingly, Spanglish. And, unlike when I’m chatting to him on WhatsApp, I don’t have to factor in time zone differences.”

While there will never be a replacement for good old fashioned conversation with another human being, recent advancements in generative AI have certainly unlocked doors for language learners who might previously have been geographically isolated. 

And by giving people access to deeper, more personalized corrections than they might get from a conversation partner or in a crowded classroom, tools like ChatGPT and Duolingo Max also give them something that’s critical to the language learning process: corrective feedback. While language learners will always need human input, generative AI is clearly a valuable addition to the language learner’s toolbox.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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