15 Tech Tips from JALT CALL 2021

The JALT CALL 2021 online conference took place from 4th to 6th of June 2021. It was sponsored by Poodll and TeacherTools:


In case you missed it, here are some useful Tech Tips I picked up over the course of the weekend!

  1. SPARQL is a semantic query language for databases which is able to retrieve and manipulate data stored in Resource Description Framework (RDF) format
  2. According to the founders of Xreading, the following are both fallacies: “Cheaters are only hurting themselves” and “Japanese students don’t cheat”!
  3. GIGAProject is a partnership between Japan and U.S. companies to help put the latest mobile devices in the hands of every Japanese student.
  4. Some of the physical impacts of prolonged online learning include: eyestrain, backache, and fatigue:

Image from “Transitions and connections: student reflections on emergency remote teaching and learning (ERTL) in 2020” (Sandra Healy)


  1. Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.
  2. Miro provides an engaging, intuitive, in-person collaboration experience
  3. Most teachers surveyed at the JALT 2021 conference believe there will be some limited teaching and learning online after the COVID pandemic subsides:

Image from “Optimizing the future of language teaching with technology in Japan” (Betsy Lavolette)


  1. Students have various concerns about learning online, including Physical, Pedagogical, Social, Technological, and Content-related concerns:

Image from “EFL students’ perceptions and preferences of online learning: a Japanese higher education context” (Satchie Haga)


  1. Spatial.io allows you to create a lifelike avatar and work as if your are next to your colleagues, utilizing VR and Augmented Reality


  1. Gather is a video-calling space that lets multiple people hold separate conversations in parallel, walking in and out of those conversations just as easily as they would in real life.


  1. Wonder is a space where you can connect to others in a spontaneous and fluid way by moving around freely between groups. It’s fun, creative and energizing.


  1. Run The World is a one-stop solution for virtual social gatherings, webinars and conferences that deliver engagement.
  2. The ISTE Standards for Students are designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process
  3. VocabLevelTest.Org allows you to easily create and administer meaning-recall and form-recall vocabulary levels tests

Image from “Self-marking online form-recall and meaning-recall vocabulary tests” (Stuart McLean)


  1. LingoBingo.Live allows students to practice listening and speaking in a live online game

Image from “Fun listening & speaking practice with LingoBingo.Live” (Oliver Rose)

Learning Languages with AI-powered Chatbots

Advances in both Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) have raised the question of whether AI-powered chatbots could be an alternative or supplement to flesh-and-blood human teachers in some situations. Can these tools really help learners acquire foreign languages?

From the malevolent Hal 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to the charming Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, computers that talk have shocked and seduced us in popular culture for many decades.

Spike Jonze’s Samantha (pictured) developed an intimate relationship with its (her?) owner

When Apple officially incorporated their voice assistant Siri into iOS in 2011, the reality of having an intelligent assistant that understood and obeyed our every word seemed one step closer for everyone.

The Amazon Echo “smart speaker” hit the market in 2014, and has been the dominant device in that field ever since. Other products in the same space include Google’s Nest, and Apple’s HomePod. Social networks also started to jump on the AI assistant bandwagon, with Facebook incorporating chatbots into its Messenger platform in 2016, and LINE releasing the Clova assistant in 2017.

Smart Speakers such as Amazon’s Echo (pictured) have been gaining popularity since 2014

Advances in both Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) have raised the question of whether AI-powered chatbots could be an alternative or supplement to flesh-and-blood human teachers in some situations. Can these tools really help learners acquire foreign languages?

General purpose AI assistants for language learning

The applicable theory of language learning to bear in mind here is interactionism – the idea that languages are acquired by interacting with other speakers of those languages.

Even though smartphone and smart speaker based AI assistants haven’t usually been designed specifically with language learning in mind, some innovative teachers and researchers have used them for these purposes. One of the major issues to overcome here is the fact that these assistants aren’t optimized for non-native speech, and may struggle to correctly transcribe or understand it.

Research has shown that the tech behind these devices can recognize non-native speech to some extent (with Google Assistant recognizing 87% of learner utterances and Apple’s Siri recognizing 67% in one Japan-based study). 

So if a language learner is able to speak clearly enough for an AI assistant to understand them, what kinds of activities can be done to bring about further gains in language ability?

The applicable theory of language learning to bear in mind here is interactionism – the idea that languages are acquired by interacting with other speakers of those languages. 

Interacting with another person with language involves taking turns, negotiating meaning (figuring out what the other person is trying to say), and an information gap (transferring information from one speaker to another). There is no reason in theory why the tenets of interactionism cannot apply to human-computer interaction as well as human-human interaction.

General purpose AI assistants can stand in for human interlocutors in interview or quiz type activities, especially where the learner is asking the questions. However, the interaction tends to become one-sided, because AI assistants don’t ask questions unless programmed to do so. 

And while learners may receive implicit feedback on pronunciation or grammatical form where the AI doesn’t understand the question that has been uttered, they won’t receive explicit feedback unless they are using an app that has been specifically designed for language learners.

AI assistants specifically designed for language learning

There have been several attempts to develop AI assistants and other interactive speech apps specifically for language learners. Here we will take a look at some of these products and services, and evaluate their usefulness and effectiveness.

Duolingo Chatbots

Duolingo launched chatbots for its iOS app back in 2016, promising to help users “come up with things to say in real­-life situations”. Although the feature seemed to be well received by its users, it quietly slipped away and there is no sign of it returning yet.

Duolingo’s chatbots included a “Help me reply” feature, which would suggest words and phrases for the learner to use in their responses. The interactions with the chat bots would become more advanced as the users’ level progressed. There were some limitations to Duolingo’s chatbots though. For example, they only offered structured dialogues, as opposed to open-ended speech.

Duolingo’s chat bots (iOS only) promised to help users “come up with things to say in real life situations”.. but the feature quietly slipped away and shows no sign of returning

We hope to see a new version of these Chatbots from Duolingo as they have shown promising results for language learning outcomes.

Elai (ETS)

In December 2020, ETS released Elai (iOS/Android), an app that allows users to practice speaking about a range of topics and receive feedback on their speech.

Elai includes model answers from other learners and native speakers, and also provides tips for learners who want to repeat the same exercise.

Unlike Duolingo chatbots, Elai’s focus is on open speech. Users must respond to a prompt and record their answers within a 30 second time limit.

Elai offers a variety of feedback on learner speech, including the extent to which the learner repeated the same words; how often the learner paused in during their speech; and whether or not the learner used a lot of “filler” words, e.g. “uh”, “erm”, “ah”.

Elai attempts to improve the speaker’s vocabulary knowledge by providing a list of higher level words at the end of the exercise, which could also be used to respond to the prompt.

Elai is still in Beta status, and the extent to which it will be embraced by learners, teachers, and researchers is still an open question, but being developed by one of the world’s largest English language testing companies (ETS is behind the TOEFL and the TOEIC) certainly puts it in a strong position from the outset.

Buddy.ai

Buddy.ai is aimed specifically at young learners of English

Buddy.ai (iOS/Android) focusses on the young English language learner market, and promises to “[provide] unlimited practice of spoken English.. to millions of students”.

The app offers a variety of language games and activities, including listen and repeat, question and answer, and interactive videos.

One of the drawbacks of the app, however, is that it only supports users with Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Polish as a first language. The app has a bilingual interface, and if the user has a first language other than one of these four, they will struggle to understand the instructions.

ELSA

Elsa (iOS/Android) is a mobile app that focuses specifically on improving the users pronunciation to help them “speak like an American” (although proponents of TEFL Equity might have something to say about this – should “American” be the target for all English learners?).

Through listen-and-repeat and interactive dialogue type exercises, Elsa teaches the user how words are blended together in casual speech, which in turn helps to improve the user’s fluency.

Summary

The principles of interactionism suggest that language learners can improve their skills simply by conversing with another speaker of the target language. However, there are issues to be overcome when using AI-powered virtual assistants for language learners, including lack of optimization for non-native speech, and lack of true discourse-level interaction.

Apps that specifically target language learners can do better when it comes to recognizing non-native speech, and offering more life-like interactions. 

English Central, for example, is one of the leaders in the recognition of non-native speech, and gives users instant feedback on their pronunciation and fluency while speaking lines from a library of thousands of videos.

However, many of the other apps discussed here focus on either niche segments of learners (e.g. Russian and Polish speaking children) or niche language language skills (such as fine-grain pronunciation problems). 

There is yet to emerge an artificially intelligent chatbot which can be used by all levels and all ages of learners that offers true human-like interaction and feedback.

In addition, student reactions to the recent COVID pandemic have shown that many students value face-to-face learning over online methods. Although chatbots and smart speakers could be a useful supplement to face-to-face or online learning with a human teacher, it seems unlikely that they will be a complete replacement for human teachers any time soon.

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