Robo-tricks in Language Learning

The world’s first humanoid robot, Sophia, made international headlines, when it (she) was granted full citizenship by Saudi Arabia at a business event in Riyadh. The social humanoid robot, which was developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, uses artificial intelligence (AI) and face recognition to imitate human gestures and facial expressions. She can maintain some simple conversations and answer some basic queries.

AI, which is designed to make machines to do intelligence things, is not new to the world; it has been around for more than 70 years. Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexia are all some of the examples. AI, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) are becoming the hot topics in the language-learning space as new technologies and tools are being touted as silver bullets that could fundamentally change the way we learn.

Tech companies are shelling out millions of dollars on AI, virtual assistants, chatbots and various language learning apps to make language learning easier. However, the real challenge is not how these innovations in tech can teach people languages, but how can great tech extend, supplement, and scale the human interaction that is the core of language learning.

Social robots like Sophia are one of the newest forms of technologies used in the education sector as these robots are specifically designed to communicate and interact with people autonomously or semi-autonomously following behavioral norms that are typical of human interaction. Moreover, robot-assisted language learning is also developing rapidly, with more and more companies entering this space. Social robots, unlike industrial robots, allow leaners to interact with them, which is very important for language development.

These robots can be utilized for teaching specific aspects of language or specific groups of people, such as those with hearing impairments. Furthermore, robots allow more natural interactions than other forms of technology. They can also be programmed to take up specific role as a friend and teacher if the aim of the learnings task is to encourage and correct kids. Through their sensors, robots can detect humans’ motivational and educational needs and change their behavior accordingly. Social robots can also be utilized in vocabulary learning and language production, apart from pronunciation, intonation, etc. Also, manipulation of real-life objects and usage of gestures and whole-body movement can help learners in acquiring a language.

However, there are some limitations also for using robots for teaching languages. Although young children can learn words from a robot due to its novelty, it does not mean that robots are more effective than humans or other devices in teaching language.

After all, language is not just based on memorization of grammar systems, vocabulary, and pronunciation, but on ‘pragmatics’, a term for confidence, situational awareness and cultural knowledge — a branch of linguistics related to the use of language in social contexts and the ways people produce and comprehend meanings through language.

Furthermore, the human and cultural elements of language are irreplaceable as cultural connotations, subtleties, and idiomatic usage simply cannot be completely conveyed without real human interaction. The fear that robots will put several jobs at risk in the language learning space is unnecessary as there is still room for human-centric skills in language learning. Above all, language is deeply rooted in culture, and vice versa; hence, finding the right balance between human-centric approach and technology would be the best strategy.